Understanding the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic

By - Primary Care Journal

Understanding the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic

On 11 May 2021 Public Policy Projects (PPP) hosted a virtual breakfast with Dame Carol Black, Adviser to NHS Improvement and Public Health England on Health and Work, and Dr. Waqaar Shah, Chairman of the Expert Advisory Panel on the Management of Long-Term Effects of Covd-19 at NICE. Taking place during mental health awareness week, this session explored some of the long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic including shifts in work patterns, its detrimental impact on mental health, and how it has affected broader social determinants of health.

How can post-covid syndrome impact daily life?

Referencing the NICE guidelines on managing the long-term effects of Covid-19, Dr. Shah noted that post-covid syndrome, or long-covid, is identified when individuals experience symptoms for more than 12 weeks. Alongside physical symptoms such as skin rashes, joint pain and earache, there are also “significant mental health problems”. Accounting for this, NICE recommends that clinicians seek to understand a patient's mental health symptoms in addition to physical symptoms and, where necessary, patients should receive psychiatric care and support. Dr. Shah suggested this could be done by discussing how a patient’s life and daily activities have been affected by an ongoing Covid-19 infection.

The new normal is shifting work patterns  

Dr. Shah highlighted that the fatigue associated with post-covid syndrome can be particularly challenging for those who wish to return to the work pattern they followed prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. By not being able to meet the same time and energy commitments, individuals may feel they have become unreliable and incapable of fulfilling their professional responsibilities. In her presentation on returning to the office, Carol echoed Dr. Shah’s remarks, noting how challenging a return to ‘normal’ may be for all office employees, particularly those who have suffered with long-covid.

Across society, returning to work can be complex, challenging, and frightening. However, the impact and experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has differed greatly depending on one’s work; front-line workers have experienced increased health risks and mental burnout, home workers have felt isolated, and both furloughed workers and those unemployed have dealt with a significant mental health deficit.

In focusing specifically on home workers, Carol presented information from the IES Working from Home Wellbeing survey published in April 2020 that illustrated what participants deemed to be the best and worst features of working from home. The best features included reduced commuting, flexibility, a relaxed environment, family time, and autonomy. However, the worst features included lack of social interaction with colleagues, IT problems, a worse work-life balance, and a poor workspace.

Carol reminded us that, while the shift to home working “wasn’t an experiment we designed”, it has allowed us to reflect and reconsider how we understand work and productivity as we put money “not into bricks and mortar, but into developing our people”. Drawing specifically on the company Dropbox, Carol notes the growing trend in adopting ‘virtual first’ work arrangement policies whereby physical workspaces exist solely for the purpose of collaborative work or for those unable to work from home.

Social isolation: A hidden pandemic  

While the Covid-19 pandemic offers important hindsight that could improve the well-being of homeworkers, it must be acknowledged that it has also detrimentally impacted the mental health of many. Though lockdown restrictions across the UK continue to ease and the vaccination programme maintains a swift pace, Dr. Shah spoke of social isolation and loneliness as “a hidden pandemic”. Offering insights from the front line through his role as a GP, he notes that individuals are experiencing stress caused by loneliness and fear of catching Covid-19. While such individuals may not have ever contracted the virus, they are still profoundly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Dr. Shah continued, while studies have not yet confirmed this, there are concerns of an increase in rates of suicidal thoughts and self-harm during the Covid-19 pandemic. In response, NICE recommends that clinicians follow national and local guides and refer people displaying symptoms of anxiety and mood disorders.

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