Staff morale in England’s NHS is approaching an all-time low and may be affecting the care that doctors and nurses are providing their patients, leading health experts have warned.
The combination of budget cuts and government-led criticism of the service since the Mid Staffordshire scandal has left frontline staff feeling so demoralised that standards of care are at risk.
Declining staff morale is now the factor of greatest concern to hospital financial directors, according to a report by the King’s Fund health think-tank.
The study also found that one NHS hospital in five now expects to be in deficit by the end of the financial year. Professor John Appleby, chief economist at the King’s Fund, told The Independent that there was a known link between staff morale and the quality of care, and called the findings “very worrying”. “You’ve got politicians saying there are problems with the NHS,” he said. “I think there has been a feeling from NHS staff that they’ve had a bit of bashing.”
Urgent action is needed to ease the workloads of over-burdened health staff, medical unions said last night, amid concern that low morale could spark an exodus of talent.
The Government has been accused by Labour of intentionally “ running down” the NHS in the past year, in the wake of the Francis report into care failings at Mid Staffordshire trust, and Sir Bruce Keogh’s review of hospitals with higher-than-average mortality rates.
Labour’s Andy Burnham has accused Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, of deliberately denigrating the NHS to drive home “a privatisation agenda” but this is the first time leading experts have raised concerns that public criticisms of the NHS could actually be harming the quality of patient care.
Mr Burnham said that the financial crisis faced by trusts, and low staff morale, were a consequence of the Coalition’s health reforms. “Staff morale is at an all-time low because of this Government’s gross mismanagement of the NHS,” he said. “Doctors pleaded with the Prime Minister to halt his reorganisation because they knew it would leave the NHS weakened.”
However a Conservative health spokesperson said that the statistics missed “the big picture” of an NHS performing strongly, with 196,000 fewer patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for treatment, than in 2008.
“Labour’s desperate attempts to run down the NHS’s strong performance are wearing thin; we have reversed years of declining productivity by dismantling their bloated bureaucracy and putting doctors in charge,” they said.
A recent report by the Point of Care Foundation found patient satisfaction is consistently higher in trusts where staff report higher levels of health and well-being.
The number of hospital trusts predicting a deficit has increased steadily in the past year, from just one in 15 a year ago, to one in five today, according to the King’s Fund’s quarterly survey of NHS financial directors.
Professor Appleby blamed a sustained squeeze on the health service’s budget. He said some hospital boards were now facing a “ stark choice” between “planning to overspend in order to ensure the quality of care is OK, or staying in budget with the risk that they may be damaging not just quality but even safety”.
The report also found the percentage of outpatients waiting more than 18 weeks for NHS treatment is at its highest level since 2008. The analysis shows 3.6 per cent of outpatients waited more than 18 weeks for treatment in November 2013.
The health service has a target of finding £20bn in efficiency savings by 2015, but experts at the King’s Fund said that their survey suggested that the NHS would struggle to meet the target.
Dr Paul Flynn, chair of the British Medical Association’s consultant committee, said that the report’s findings on NHS finances and on staff morale were of “serious concern”. “Staff morale affects the quality of patient care, and the Government urgently needs to take steps to understand the root causes of low morale and address issues such as workload, work-life balance and the effects NHS reforms are having on staff,” he said.