Publication date: Nov 29, 2023
The study aimed to identify the causes of moral distress in public health professionals associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the potential ways of avoiding or mitigating the distress. The survey was distributed to all members of the UK Faculty of Public Health between 14 December 2021 and 23 February 2022. Conventional qualitative content analysis was conducted to explore the situations in which moral distress arises, the moral judgments that led to distress and the proposed ways to address moral distress. A total of 629 responses were received from respondents broadly representative of the public health professional workforce. The main situations causing moral distress were national policy, guidance and law; public health advice; and workplace environments. Moral distress was precipitated by judgments about having caused injury, being unable to do good, dishonest communications and unjust prioritization. The need to improve guidance, communication and preparedness was recognized, though there was disagreement over how to achieve this. There were consistent calls for more subsidiarity, moral development and support and freedom to voice concerns. The causes of moral distress in public health are distinct from other healthcare professions. Important proposals for addressing moral distress associated with the COVID-19 pandemic have been voiced by public health professionals themselves.