It is just over two years since the first patients to be treated for Covid-19 in England were admitted to Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. It wasn’t too many weeks before other hospitals were admitting their first patients and words like shielding, social-distancing and lockdown started to enter into our vocabulary.
Nobody knew what to expect at nor how long things might last. As cases began to rapidly rise, a metaphor that I sometimes heard was of being in a 100 metre sprint. Over time, as cases did not rise quite as sharply as initially thought, but nor did they rapidly drop off either, that metaphor changed to one of being less a sprint but more a 10km race. As cases began to rise again in the later part of 2020, the distance was upped again to that of a marathon. Two years on and we must now be in the territory of ultra-distance racing!
I recently asked health and social care chaplains to send me three words that sum up a little of how they are feeling. The vast majority included the word ‘tired’ or some related synonym. Experienced staff, both chaplains and those in other professions, talk about how they have never known anything like it. There have always been busy times, particular during winter, but they say that they feel like they have been responding to a major incident for the best part of two years. A colleague recently wrote about how they hated the description of the NHS working ‘tirelessly’ as it plays down the reality of how shattered people actually are.
Throughout the time of the pandemic, even though Covid pressures have risen and fallen, the pressure on staff has not. Each time Covid infection rates fall, there is the pressure to catch up with postponed operations, tests, appointments, etc. Patients are often coming into hospital, or seeing GPs, later than they might have done previously and consequently may have more complex medical, emotional and spiritual needs. Alongside the exhaustion, there are also high levels of anxiety, guilt, and moral injury. The danger of burnout is very real with some modelling suggest that there could be as many as one in six doctors and nurses off sick throughout 2022.
Chaplains are not immune to this, as the frequency of the choice of the word tired shows. However – to finish on a more uplifting note – many chaplains also included positive words such as hopeful, grateful and blessed. It is the privilege of health and social care chaplains to minister to a community of patients, visitors and staff who face some of the most profound human experiences. The good news of the gospel is that our exhausted and fragile reality is bound up with the nature of God, distinctively revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who shared our weakness and vulnerability. In paying attention to the meanings and stories of people’s lives, hopes, beliefs and doubts we affirm the dignity and value of people, whatever their circumstances, and are a tangible reminder of a transcendent dimension to life.
Rev Dr Mark Newitt is the Secretary for Healthcare Chaplaincy at the Free Churches Group and a chaplain working in the chaplaincy teams at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals and St Luke’s Hospice, Sheffield. Within his role at the Free Churches Group, Mark curates a monthly information digest for health and social care chaplains. You can read more about this and sign up to receive it, here. You can find out more about the work of the Free Churches Group and how it supports engaging in the public square through encouraging and equipping health and social care chaplains, prison chaplains and engagement in education on its website.