COVID-19: the support available for nurses facing emotional and financial hardship

How organisations such as the RCN Foundation are helping staff, and how to apply for a grant

How organisations such as the RCN Foundation are helping staff, and how to apply for a grant

  • The RCN Foundation has been inundated with applications for its hardship grants and financial support for nurses during the pandemic
  • Agency staff, single-parent families and lower-paid staff are among those left in precarious positions, and the majority of COVID-19 Support Fund grants were awarded to staff from a BAME background
  • Help and advice is available for staff who are struggling to make ends meet or to cope with the trauma and restrictions of the pandemic
The RCN Foundation has been giving ‘lifesaver’ grants to nurses throughout the pandemic

When the full story of the COVID-19 pandemic comes to be told, the courage of nursing and medical staff in the face of massive pressures will be a stand-out feature.

But perhaps more easily overlooked will be the additional struggles many nursing staff faced in their personal lives as the pandemic ground on.

Personal financial struggles have been exacerbated by the pandemic

Lauded as ‘heroes’ and ‘angels’ by the public and the media, many will have felt anything but as they struggled to stay afloat financially.

Stories of nurses and care staff in poverty are sadly not uncommon, but the pandemic has forced many more into that precarious situation.

Paediatric nurse and single mother Carrie* is one example. An agency nurse for 13 years, she had to self-isolate for two weeks after a member of her household had COVID-19 symptoms.

In that fortnight, she received no sick pay. She later lost her job and she had two young children to feed and rent to pay.

Asif*, a healthcare support worker whose work and four-hour round trip to get there were exhausting, was already struggling before his car broke down. When it did, he simply could not afford to get it fixed.

Emergency support offered by the RCN Foundation

The RCN Foundation was established as an independent charity by the RCN in 2010 to support the profession and improve the health and well-being of the public.

As well as backing projects that promote and advance nursing, it supports vulnerable members of the nursing workforce who are facing hardship and crisis.

And COVID-19 added many more to those numbers, says the foundation’s director Deepa Korea.

‘That nursing staff were taking the time to apply for grants of just £250 shows how desperately short of money some of them had become during the pandemic’

Deepa Korea, director, RCN Foundation

‘When the pandemic started we saw a huge rise in grant applications from hard-up nursing staff struggling to keep their heads above water.

Picture: iStock

‘The pandemic really exposed the idiosyncrasies of the profession’s working practices – bank and agency nurses forced to self-isolate suddenly found their income dried up, while other families that relied on both parents’ incomes experienced similar difficulties, to name but two examples.’

Donations from the public ‘skyrocketed’

Fortunately, just as the number of requests for help rose, donations from the public ‘skyrocketed’, Ms Korea says.

Two new funds were opened in response to demand: the COVID-19 Support Fund, which offered grants of up to £2,000, and the Stelios Says Thank You Awards, a project made possible by the philanthropic foundation of easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, offering grants of up to £250.

The funds were swamped with applications – 1,000 in 48 hours in the case of the latter – forcing them to close while additional funding was sourced.

‘That nursing staff were taking the time to apply for grants of just £250 shows how desperately short of money some of them had become during the pandemic,’ says Ms Korea.

She explains that many of the applications were to cover basic necessities, such as rent.

‘In those circumstances, even a small grant like the ones we offer can make a difference between keeping your head above water financially and not. It’s absolutely heart-breaking.’

Forced to shield: how a grant helped me during financial difficulties

It was a devastating chain of events that led mental health nurse Maria* to apply for a grant from the RCN Foundation’s COVID-19 Support Fund.

Diagnosed with cancer four years ago, she had chemotherapy and radical surgery, with reconstructive operations following later.

She had also separated from her husband and eventually moved to a new house and changed cities. She continued to be employed by the same organisation but had recurring periods of sick leave and when COVID-19 hit the UK last year she was forced to shield.

Dire financial straits

Then, for complex reasons including a change in Maria’s line management while she was off sick – about which she was unaware – and subsequent emails that went astray, her employer demanded that she repay three months’ wages, leaving her in dire financial straits.

She applied successfully to the COVID-19 Support Fund and was awarded £1,000.

Her new rented home was unfurnished but the grant allowed her to buy some essential furniture including a bed.

Maria says she feels as though she has come through a storm. ‘I felt so moved to receive the grant. And I feel encouraged to press on and pursue my goals to rebuild my life and independence.’

The impact of self-isolating and shielding

In the four months the COVID-19 Support Fund ran, it awarded £1.45 million in grants, roughly the same as the RCN Foundation gives out in a year.

The need to self-isolate has left some in financial difficulty Picture: iStock

‘We were overwhelmed with applications,’ says Ms Korea.

The main reason for hardship, cited by nearly 35% of applicants, was the need to self-isolate and its impact on pay.

Having to shield and a partner’s loss of income were among other common reasons for making an application.

BAME staff disproportionately affected by pandemic-related hardship

A striking feature of applicants to the COVID-19 Support Fund was the number from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. Of the 3,286 successful applications, 81.5% were from nursing staff from a BAME background, mostly black African. By comparison, white British applicants accounted for 8.3% of the total.

The significant number of applications from BAME nursing and midwifery staff did not come as a surprise, says Ms Korea.

‘BAME staff are disproportionately represented at lower pay bands and so the risk of them falling into hardship was always going to be much higher.

‘The pandemic has underlined and exacerbated existing inequalities faced by health and care staff from BAME backgrounds. Our data provides yet more evidence of the need for action to tackle these inequalities.’

Help with the cost of counselling for COVID-related trauma

Emma* is an intensive care nurse who, after seeing many patients die with COVID-19, began to struggle.

She applied to the RCN Foundation for a grant from the Stelios Says Thank You Awards.

Successful in her application, she used the grant to help cover the cost of counselling to improve her mental health and well-being.

‘The past seven weeks at work have seen me endure sleepless nights, severe anxiety about going to work, about getting infected and bringing that infection home to my partner,’ Emma says.

‘It has been heart-breaking to see so many people die right in front of us and to see my colleagues break down.

‘I have started regular therapy to try and cope day to day and to help deal with some of what I’ve seen. This grant will go towards my ongoing therapy, which is expensive but is crucial for me in order to go the distance in this marathon.’

Grants have helped people carry on with their work

Meanwhile, for paediatric nurse Carrie, a grant from the RCN Foundation was a lifesaver.

‘I’m not sure what I would have done without it,’ she says. ‘The money provided me with much-needed relief at one of the most difficult times of my life.’

Asif is also grateful. His car was fixed and the grant he was given meant that, for a while at least, he didn’t have to worry about the cost of petrol.

‘The long commute and work hours have taken a physical toll on me, but I am determined to continue because my community needs me and I want to help.

‘This grant will make sure I can get on with my work.’

Sources of support for nursing staff who have financial worries

The best advice for anyone facing money problems as a result of COVID-19 is to seek assistance early rather than letting debt mount and hoping it will go away.

Fortunately, there are several sources of help and support to turn to and the RCN lists many of them on its website, which also has advice on a wide range of topics, from food banks to funeral costs.

Help is available: many organisations offer advice on support such as food banks, benefits and help with rent or mortgage payments Picture: Alamy

The RCN site also includes guidance on entitlements and support for those facing reduced income as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Specific guidance is available on a range of financial issues, including:

  • Advice for those facing eviction or struggling with rent or mortgage payments
  • Benefits for agency and bank nurses
  • Problems resulting from overdrafts, personal loans and credit cards
  • Struggles with motor finance

The RCN Foundation is continuing to support members of the nursing profession during the pandemic, even though the COVID-19 Support Fund and the Stelios Says Thank You Awards are now closed for applications.

Hardship grants are available to current and former nurses, midwives and healthcare support workers, and in some circumstances help can be offered to nursing students. Membership of the RCN is not a requirement. Full details can be found on the RCN Foundation website.

The RCN Lamplight Support Service, funded by the foundation, supports those in the nursing community who are facing financial pressures. The service provides tailored advice and information on a range of topics, including welfare benefits and ways of reducing expenditure.

The Cavell Nurses’ Trust helps nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants, working and retired, who are experiencing personal or financial hardship. The charity offers a range of financial assistance including help with financial emergencies, buying essential white goods, rent deposits and removal costs. Students are not eligible for grants.

Turn2us is a national charity that provides support to people facing difficult times. It has a webpage dedicated to helping those affected by the pandemic to access benefits, grants and other help.

* All names of grant recipients have been changed

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