Mental health conditions are more prevalent in rural and regional Australia than in metropolitan regions. With the increasing threat of issues like climate change and the post-pandemic recovery, there is a risk that the prevalence of mental health conditions will continue to rise. Importantly, rural communities experience unequal access to healthcare services in comparison to their metropolitan counterparts, creating the ‘perfect storm’ for widening health disparities, including for mental health issues.
Further, rural and regional health services are the ‘health leaders’ in their communities, often employing a large proportion of local community members. The health of the community and the health of staff is highly interconnected, creating a unique social capital for rural health services in their communities. However, rural health service staff experience substantial challenges in the workplace (including geographical isolation, poor access to resources, sole practitioner status) and may live in communities with limited access to mental health services and supports. Self-care and personal coping strategies are often promoted for staff within health services. However, the impact on staff mental health and wellbeing from demands of both the workplace and the broader community needs to be recognised.
The Colac Area Health Research Unit has been awarded a Western Alliance Mental Health Research grant to lead a collaborative project with nine rural and regional health services across Victoria, to explore the facilitators and barriers to access and provision of wellbeing supports in their services. By working together, these health services – with support from Deakin Rural Health, Monash Rural Health and Western Health – hope to provide rural Victorian health services with clear guidance for tailoring services and strategies to support staff wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
The research, titled COVID-19 Regional Health Staff Wellbeing – Accessibility of Supports (CReW-Ace), recognises the significant value in ensuring that rural health service staff are supported in the workplace. Staff health and wellbeing directly impacts workforce recruitment and retention, ultimately shaping the quality of patient care and service provision. Initiatives that improve staff health and wellbeing (and therefore patient care and service provision) are integral in areas where the burden of mental health conditions is high. Context-specific evidence is needed to identify solutions to support the wellbeing of health service staff and minimise the impacts of future crises on rural and regional health services.
While smaller rural health services may traditionally have had limited resources available for engagement in research activities, CReW-Ace provides an opportunity for these organisations to collaborate in a rurally led research project that is relevant to the context-specific needs of health service staff in non-metropolitan communities. Through cooperation and collaboration, our research addressing the unique needs of rural and regional health services will contribute to greater understanding of how health services can support staff health and wellbeing through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.