After working through what many have described as the worst year of their careers, NHS staff have reached an “emergency” level of burnout that risks the future of the health service, according to the latest report from the Commons Health and Social Care Committee.
The report outlined the challenges faced by exhausted staff – none of them new. We knew long before the pandemic hit that we are underfunded, short of colleagues and dealing with “chronic excessive workloads”. The events of the last year have only opened up the cracks. Morale is at rock bottom, and the relentless suffering that staff have been exposed to has driven many to leave.
When the cabinet minister George Eustice responded to the report by saying he wasn’t sure what more Boris Johnson’s government could do for NHS staff suffering with burnout, the people of the NHS shared a collective eye-roll.
The solutions are so obvious, and so achievable, that his comments have been met with despair by NHS staff. As Kate Jarman of Flex NHS tweeted: “We’ve normalised really, really bad working conditions for NHS staff for decades so that now going for a wee in the middle of your shift feels like a treat.”
So on behalf of the Doctors’ Association UK, as a voice for frontline doctors, here is what the government can do to help all NHS staff.
Start with the bare basics. Ensure staff have the means to eat, drink and go to the toilet during a shift. Many GPs, contrary to the morale-sapping reports of their surgeries being closed, have been working 12-hour days throughout the pandemic, with barely time to grab a sandwich at their desk.
Hospital teams doing gruelling shift-work repeatedly struggle to buy a hot meal on a night shift, or to stop for a drink of water.
We’ve reached a point where we are relying on charitable organisations, such as NHS Charities Together and the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation, to provide these essentials. Colleagues frequently go without breaks and food, and are left depleted – unable to give their best to their patients. We need adequate rest facilities. Access to a fridge or a kettle. Somewhere to change out of uniform.
We need free parking for staff. The pandemic proved that it can be done. Many NHS staff (who also need a pay rise, by the way) have to budget to facilitate parking at their place of work. Scrapping these charges is an easy win.
NHS staff deserve to feel safe going to work. Verbal abuse is an almost daily occurrence for many staff, while physical abuse is also on the rise, according to the latest NHS staff survey. GPs are increasingly bearing the brunt of the nation’s pandemic fatigue, with reports of practices being vandalised, or in one case, subject to an arson attack.
MPs can seek to counter this, by combating misinformation, and leading campaigns to inform the public how to access the services they need. Why not put the NHS on the school curriculum?
It’s also vital that flexible working is normalised, and that provisions are made for staff with carer responsibilities. We need adequate equipment for staff who are able to work remotely, where appropriate. Staff should be given their rotas more than a few weeks in advance of a new role, and more staff must be employed to cover the workload. Less than full-time doctors typically take on a workload that would be considered in many other sectors as more than full-time.
We need unnecessary, box-ticking bureaucracy that doesn’t add to patient care to be removed. Consider removing the burden of CQC inspections, appraisals and revalidation – or make them more straightforward, so that the unpaid time spent on them outside of working hours can be used for relaxation.
The NHS has reached a crisis point, resulting from a toxic combination of chronic underfunding, a diminished workforce and increasing patient demands – with a global pandemic thrown in.
Staff wellbeing needs to be at the heart of healthcare delivery, and these basics need to be provided without delay for all NHS and social care staff as standard practice.
Dr Ellen Welch is a GP and editorial lead with the Doctors’ Association UK
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