Nurses and female health care workers most at risk of distress during Covid-19 pandemic

9th February 2021

Nurses and female health care workers are most at risk of experiencing psychological distress during the Covid-19 pandemic, new research from the University of Sheffield has revealed.

The new study is the largest global review of factors associated with distress amongst health care workers during an infectious disease outbreak, including Covid-19, SARS, Bird Flu, Swine Flu and Ebola.

Researchers assessed fixed factors such as demographic characteristics, age, sex and occupation as well as social psychological and infection-related factors in more than 143,000 health care workers from around the world. The review of 139 studies included data collected between 2000 and November 2020.   

Dr Fuschia Sirois, Reader in Social and Health Psychology from the University of Sheffield, and lead author of the study, said: “Consistent evidence indicated that being female, a nurse, experiencing stigma and having contact or risk of contact with infected patients were the biggest risk factors for psychological distress among health care workers. 

“By analysing data from previous infectious disease outbreaks such as SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu it appears that distress for health care workers can persist for up to three years after the initial outbreak.

“As the world continues to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic it is so important that we identify the health care workers who are most at risk for distress and the factors that can be modified to reduce distress and improve resilience.”

The findings, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, have informed a new framework which health care providers can use to identify those most at risk of increased distress, as well as areas to target to help build resilience. This framework can help guide early interventions and ongoing monitoring.

“Personal and organisational social support, feeling in control, sufficient information about the outbreak and proper protection, training and resources, were associated with less psychological distress,” said Dr Sirois.

“It was interesting to see that factors such as age didn’t appear to have a significant impact - even during Covid-19. In some studies older people weren’t distressed - perhaps because they had worked as health care professionals for many years and therefore felt more equipped in dealing with an outbreak, whereas younger people who are physically less likely to be affected by the infectious disease tended to be less experienced in dealing with an outbreak professionally, therefore causing them to be more distressed.” 

Social aspects also affected people differently - people certainly benefited from having a social support network, however living with a partner or children caused increased stress for many who were scared about passing on the infection.  

Dr Sirois and a team from the University of Sheffield and the Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust are now conducting a further study with NHS workers using this new framework in order to help identify factors which could help to reduce distress during COVID-19.

The Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield is focused on exploring the science behind the human brain and human behaviour. Researchers cover a wide range of topics, ranging from the intricacies of neural networks and brain function, to the developmental, biological and social mechanisms that shape who we are, to increasing our understanding of physical and mental health issues, and how we can treat them. Researchers apply a variety of research methods and use a range of specialist research facilities to understand human behaviour, thinking, interaction, and health problems.Find out more at

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