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A new University of the Highlands and Islands project aims to support mental health of NHS workers

A new project is being launched to support the mental health of frontline workers during the Coronavirus crisis.


Researchers at the University of the Highlands and Islands have been awarded £44,581 of Scottish Government funding to lead the initiative, which aims to use digital technologies to help NHS Highland health and social care staff cope with the impacts of COVID-19. The six-month project has been developed in response to a rapid research funding call issued by the Scottish Government’s Chief Scientist Office in March.


Dr Johannes De Kock, a digital health research fellow and clinical psychologist from the university’s division of rural health and wellbeing, will lead the initiative. He will receive support from university colleagues, Dr Sarah-Anne Munoz and Dr Mark Grindle, and from NHS Highland practitioners, Professor Stephen Leslie, Dr Frances Hines and Dr Helen Latham.


Speaking about the project, Dr De Kock explained: “Previous pandemics like SARS have shown us that the psychological toll on health and care workers can be immense. Research conducted in other countries during the COVID-19 outbreak suggests that roughly half of the frontline workforce will experience a diagnosable anxiety or mood disorder. As the pandemic continues to sweep across the globe, we know that Scotland’s health and care workforce may face similar distress.


“Our project will use digital technologies to help prevent and treat psychological distress and also aim to enhance the resilience of health and care workers during the Coronavirus crisis. Participants will work with us to create personalised mental health toolkits, which might include activities like exercise and mindfulness techniques, and will monitor their mood and anxiety levels using an app. They will receive personal feedback and information about support if they are struggling. We hope that we can mitigate some of the potential negative mental health impacts of working through COVID-19.”


Dr Sarah-Anne Munoz, who heads up the university’s division of rural health and wellbeing, added: “Health professionals in rural areas frequently work in small teams or as lone practitioners. They are often embedded in local communities and will inevitably be providing care for their friends, neighbours and loved ones. It’s important to understand how we can best support these staff through the current crisis and with any longer-term impacts on their mental wellbeing.”


Professor Stephen Leslie, a Consultant Cardiologist at NHS Highland, said: “I’m delighted to be part of this collaborative project between the University of the Highlands and Islands and NHS Highland. Understanding how we can better support staff is crucial to developing and maintaining a healthy, stable work force in the Highlands. This may help staff not just during the Covid pandemic, but through other challenging times in the future.”


Fiona Hogg, Director of Human Resources and Organisational Development at NHS Highland, said: “This exciting new project will complement the broader wellbeing plan for NHS Highland colleagues which includes access to an Employee Assistance Programme and telephone email and tactical support from the psychological services teams.”


The university’s rural health and wellbeing team is also looking to secure funding to work with other groups in rural areas who may be particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of COVID-19 on mental health and wellbeing, such as young people and those living with long-term conditions.

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