NHS staff are humans, not superheroes and they must be protected (Picture: PA)
It’s been hard to know what to say to fellow medics and healthcare staff over the last year.
They’ve grimly and heroically kept their noses to the grindstone despite mounting exhaustion in the face of an unrelenting crisis.
Most haven’t had a break in months, with annual leave routinely cancelled and extra shifts undertaken. These friends and colleagues are incredibly tired, some are traumatised, and yet they continue to show up for their shifts.
Lately, the announcement on England’s roadmap out of lockdown swelled collective hope about the end of the pandemic and, as vaccine letters continued to slip through doors, WhatsApp groups have lit up, summer resolutions been formed and parties planned for 21 June.
But while this surge of joy is understandable, Covid-19 isn’t yet over. And in our excitement to shed these restrictions we mustn’t forget we’re on track to lose something else too – a huge chunk of the NHS workforce.
I’m a qualified doctor who worked in NHS A&E departments before taking a step back after reaching the point of burnout myself. I now combine my medical work with a role in clinical entrepreneurship – a portfolio career I love and one offering a level of balance that most NHS staff aren’t able to access.
Working in the NHS is a huge privilege – I’ve been told of exceptional levels of collaboration and team support over the last 12 months – but it’s still painfully clear that so many of its workers are struggling.
I have friends who work on the frontline with small children who have spent a year desperately worried about bringing the virus home. And others who live alone who have felt isolated and lonely. Pretty much all the staff I know are frazzled and in need of a break.
My work with NHS Trusts on their staffing systems has also given me insight as to just how much strain the teams supporting the frontline are also under. This stress is making our NHS staff ill – the just-released NHS Staff Survey report found that 44% of staff have felt unwell as a result of work-related stress in the last 12 months.
The NHS was already groaning under the weight of ever-increasing demand when coronavirus came along, and the pandemic has put immense extra pressure on health and care teams across the country.
We’ve had to find beds for more than 450,000 coronavirus patients, coordinate access to scarce equipment, and implement the roll-out of the biggest inoculation programme the UK has ever seen.
And that’s just been part of our work. Other diseases and accidents didn’t disappear last March and we’ve been battling to address exponentially growing backlogs and waiting lists that multiply in front of our eyes.
As with any organisation, if work shoots up but resources remain low and structures aren’t resilient, it’s the staff who bear the brunt.
The monumental pressure of the pandemic has been passed directly down to the 1.3million people working for the NHS.
It’s the doctors and nurses on the ground who have absorbed this avalanche of work and stress, staying behind after 12-hour shifts to chase up answers, skipping lunch to crack on with a dizzying caseload, forgoing days off to help colleagues out.
When the claps faded away, they worked on relentlessly – as they have been throughout the past year.
I know many doctors who have decided they’ll be taking a year out when their current rotations end, due to burnout
But medical staff are not machines and everyone has a limit. Mine came before the pandemic arrived.
When I was full-time with the NHS, the gruelling hours, overtime, night shifts, and ongoing pressure had me at boiling point. I truly love my work, but after six years of intense studying followed by a baptism of fire from the foundation training years, I needed a break and stepped back for a year before going part-time.
The huge challenges we’ve been grappling with and the cumulative exhaustion of the last 12 months have taken their toll in many different ways.
Physically, as NHS staff wear themselves out working overtime, rushed off their feet trying to deliver the best possible care; emotionally, as we grieve friends and colleagues lost to coronavirus and watch those in ICU wards struggle for breath; and mentally, as we struggle with lack of social contact in addition to the extreme pressure we face at work.
No wonder a report published last September found that a third of NHS nurses are considering leaving in the coming year, and why I’ve always resisted going back into full-time practice.
We can’t continue to ignore this crisis behind a crisis. As soon as the intensity of this current phase of the pandemic subsides, we could see countless staff hand in their notice.
It’s already happening. I know many doctors who have decided they’ll be taking a year out when their current rotations end, due to burnout. Are we really content to watch the wave of resignations rise just as coronavirus cases fall?
If we want a public health service ready for 2022 and beyond, we need to start properly supporting NHS staff now.
Crucially, that involves better mental health provision and access to mental health resources. But it’s more than that. It’s about changing the way the NHS operates so it doesn’t have to push workers too far in order to keep things ticking over.
We need more flexible hours so medical staff can sustain a personal life – which is essential to health and happiness.
We need to create and encourage sabbaticals or options for wellbeing leave, so quitting isn’t the only way staff get a decent break.
We need to invest in and incentivise the engagement of additional staff so wards aren’t continually run by a skeleton crew.
We need to think about the way we treat new clinicians and make their training less rigid and unforgiving.
And we need to continue to break down silos between hospitals and across regions, allowing them to spread the load and pool resources in times of need.
We all appreciate the NHS and the vital role it plays in our lives. But it’s not an abstract concept; it’s a complex web of organisations powered by all sorts of people doing all sorts of jobs.
Appreciating them isn’t enough. We need to ensure their careers and roles are sustainable, rewarding and offer the balance we all strive for in our lives.
The NHS is powered by humans, not superheroes. We must act to protect them before their superhuman efforts prove too much for them to bear any longer.
The Year That Changed Us
The past year has been… weird, to put it lightly.
12 months of living with Covid-19, from the restrictions on our old way of life, to going in and out of lockdown, to being confronted by the reality of death and illness, is bound to have radically changed us.
We may never go back to the way we were before.
Our series, The Year That Changed Us explores all the ways we’ve been impacted by the pandemic and how these effects will stick with us long-term, from our friendships to the nation’s mental health.
You can read the full series here.