Burnout is serious, especially for those whose jobs involve caring for the lives of others. For people working in the NHS and the care sector as a whole, the pandemic has been incredibly tough. The negative effects of the past year are being felt by vast swathes of the care sector, putting the health of themselves and those they care for at risk.
A government report titled Workforce burnout and resilience in the NHS and social care was published on Tuesday and showcases how high levels of burnout have got within the NHS and care sectors during the pandemic.
The scale of the problem
Burnout is a workplace hazard that needs to be taken seriously as it can have long-term effects on mental health and impact many other areas of our lives beyond work.
According to the WHO, burnout is ‘a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.’
Burnout is nothing new, but it has been vastly amplified by the pandemic – especially for those within the NHS. Stress management in the workplace can be a difficult task at the best of times, and these are certainly not the best of times. The pandemic response has been rapidly organised and things such as wellbeing efforts have perhaps been sidelined in favour of more tangible protections. The long and incredibly tough days have taken their toll:
‘An unacceptably high proportion of NHS staff experience negative impacts as a result of stress in the workplace and the proportion of staff suffering from stress is on an upward trend; 44% of respondents have now reported feeling unwell as a result of work-related stress in the last 12 months.’
These figures are concerning but, given the current situation that the NHS is facing, they are far from surprising. In the recent report, it was stated that ‘it is clear that workforce planning has been led by the funding envelope available to health and social care rather than by demand and the capacity required to service that demand’ – a rather damning but sadly accurate criticism.
Protect the NHS
We were all urged to ‘stay home, save lives, protect the NHS’, but it would seem too little was done to protect the staff themselves from the broader impacts of the virus.
In June 2020, ‘a survey conducted by NHS Providers [found that] 9 out of 10 trust leaders (93%) were concerned about staff wellbeing, stress and burnout following the pandemic.’ A year on, these effects are being felt. Given that these concerns were voiced – and heard by the government – a year ago, some may argue that more should have been put in place to look after the wellbeing of NHS staff and prevent these high levels of burnout.
For NHS staff, worrying about the levels of care they are able to offer patients may be worsening feelings of burnout. Further support is needed across the NHS, no matter the role. Support should be given to ‘anybody who is doing front-facing emotional toil’, from ITU consultants to porters. This emotional labour will be higher ‘if you are involved in clinical work, of course, but [support] should not leave behind all the others.’ What the shape of this support may look like is yet to be seen, but it is good to see the government taking these views seriously.
Risks posed by burnout
Burnout is associated with many mental health problems such as depression and anxiety, but for NHS staff the issue also has further implications for the people around them. If NHS staff are burnt out and struggling to maintain focus at work, this can put the health of patients in jeopardy.
Errors made in hospitals and doctors surgeries pose a risk to the physical and mental health of patients. The recent headline of a woman receiving an invasive procedure meant for another patient is just one example of these traumatising and potentially dangerous errors.
Owing to the pandemic, more NHS staff are struggling with burnout than ever. Burnout is something that compounds itself by its very nature – if NHS staff are struggling to retain focus they will then feel distant from their work, which will then add to the feeling that they are failing to deliver the quality of care their patients deserve. It is a cycle that is very hard to break out of once it begins, and something that needs far more recognition and support than it is currently receiving.
The NHS being short-staffed is unfortunately nothing new, but the pandemic has truly driven the issue home. The entire nation has been leaning on the NHS for support this past year and that does not seem like something that will end any time soon. Vast patient backlogs mean that the NHS will be playing catchup for some time, making for a challenging working environment even without these massive understaffing issues.
Combatting the staffing issue would ease the burden on current staff, but gaining new staff – and even retaining existing ones – is far easier said than done. There is a lag between seeking new staff and having new trainees ready to work, so this is far from a quick solution. There is also the challenge of attracting staff to the sector when it is currently so visibly struggling.
Care settings also are struggling to fill open roles and existing experienced staff are leaving due to the stresses of work during the pandemic. Across the sector ‘urgent action is required to tackle a vicious cycle of shortages and increased pressures on staff.’
Burnout is unfortunately nothing new for NHS staff, but the issue has been compounded by the pandemic. Short staffing, added stresses of the virus, shortages of PPE, and the looming patient backlog have all added additional weights to the shoulders of staff.
We may have clapped for our NHS heroes, but we have not done enough to actually support their wellbeing at a time where they very clearly need it. The recently published report is a clear admission that more needs to be done, but the question remains as to what the government will actually do to support staff from here on out.
About the Author: Leo Hynett
Leo Hynett is a contributing Features Writer, with a particular interest in Culture, the Arts and LGBTQ+ Politics.
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