Even prior to Covid-19, frontline healthcare workers have had to contend with highly stressful roles leading to increasing rates of mental illness and poor wellbeing.
Health professionals work in a range of settings, with elevated levels of individual responsibility and are often the primary contact for both patient/client and family.
According to the most recent statistics (January 2022), the highest reason for sickness rates in the NHS was for stress, anxiety and depression (20%). These statistics have not significantly changed since May 2019 – highlighting that staff sickness due to mental illness is not, primarily, due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to the NHS (2021) staff survey, staff stress levels have reached a five-year high with 40% of all staff identifying work-related stress in the last 12 months alone.
The NHS Long Term Plan identifies the staffing crisis as one of the main priorities going forward but, interestingly, the focus is primarily upon the recruitment of more nurses, the training of more GPs, and the use of international health professionals to support the NHS. However, there is no mention of retaining the staff that are already committed to working within the NHS.
“Why is there not a stronger focus upon looking after and retaining our current, experienced practitioners?”
Burnout has been identified as one of the leading causes of attrition within the healthcare profession. Multiple reasons have been identified for this, including lack of professional development, excessive hours, and bullying and harassment. One of the more recent conditions attributed to healthcare attrition is burnout. A main symptom of this is the feeling of a reduced professional ability and therefore a lack of confidence in performance.
Although burnout is a common issue within healthcare, it has been suggested that for a significant number of individuals it can be improved by stress management, support, interventions to improve physical and mental relaxation, resilience training, and flexibility within work schedules.
So, again I ask the question – why aren’t we doing something about this? Why is there not a stronger focus upon looking after and retaining our current, experienced practitioners? The financial implications for staff sickness and retention are huge – why is more money not invested in providing support and promoting positive wellbeing?
We recently organised a ‘wellbeing’ conference within my university. This was predominantly for both our healthcare students and frontline workers; it was a multiprofessional collaboration. The focus was on shared experiences and the importance of debriefing and continued support following a significant event. We heard from paramedics who had attended the London knife bridge attacks, the Manchester Arena bombing, police who had attended various terrorist attacks and nurses who described situations that they had been in that had resulted in multiple deaths. Some had since left their role as they had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder following the event. It was a hugely emotive day.
The common thread that ran through its entirety was the lack of support provided after the event, the lack of communication, debriefing, recognition, or counselling that was offered. Not just immediately afterwards but for the months and years that the memories will, undoubtedly, affect that individual.
This isn’t only after significant events but should be an ongoing process for all grades of staff.
The answer is quite simple, value your staff, support them, provide them with opportunity and acknowledge their achievements. In turn, the reward will be a productive, stable workforce who actually enjoy their role – and, in response to this, better patient care and outcomes – which is what we should all be striving to achieve.
Immediate action is required.
Dr Fiona Cust is associate professor in children’s nursing and collaborative practice, Staffordshire University