Burnout: “a widespread reality in today’s NHS”


Workforce planning is essential to address the problem of staff burnout throughout the NHS, which already existed but has been compounded by the pandemic. That’s one of the conclusions of the Commons Health and Social Care Committee in its new report on staff burnout

The report states: “Burnout is a widespread reality in today’s NHS and has negative consequences for the mental health of individual staff, impacting on their colleagues and the patients and service users they care for. There are many causes of burnout, but chronic excessive workload is a key driver and must be tackled as a priority. This will not happen until the service has the right number of people, with the right mix of skills across both the NHS and care system.”

In his oral evidence to the Committee, Professor Michael West of the King’s Fund says: “I want to be clear about the issue of excessive workload. The danger is that we do not see it. It is like the pattern on the wallpaper that we no longer see, but it is the No. 1 predictor of staff stress and staff intention to quit. It is also the No. 1 predictor of patient dissatisfaction. It is highly associated with the level of errors.” 

He explained that the risks of excessive workload could not be tackled without a comprehensive strategy: “Unless we have a well worked-out plan for how we can fill all the vacancies and reduce the attrition rate of staff in the NHS […] we are going to be in trouble.”

Professor West also acknowledged that the problem of burnout and the high attrition rate applies to all staff groups.

Whilst the report welcomes the ambitions of the People Plan, it also recognises that its success will depend on the provision of adequate funding. “Without adequate funding the laudable aspirations of the People Plan will not become reality.” 

It also highlights the need to extend resources to social care staff as well and notes the absence of a People Plan for social care services, which should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

This report from the Commons Health and Social Care Committee is quite unequivocal in its conclusion that better workforce planning is essential. It goes even further, by recommending that in its forthcoming Bill to reform Health and Social Care, the Government should include the requirement for Health Education England “to publish objective, transparent and independent annual reports on workforce shortages and future staff requirements that cover the next five, ten and 20 years, including an assessment of whether sufficient numbers are being trained.” This should extend to social care as well. 

The report further concludes that a “total overhaul” of the way the NHS approaches workforce planning is necessary, to provide a long-term solution to the problem, which is driven by demand and the capacity required to service that demand rather than the funding available.

Deputy Chief Executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, agrees with the findings of the report and welcomes the recommendations that a longer-term approach to workforce planning is essential, as well as the importance of aligning with social care and the efforts Trusts are already taking to prioritise staff health and wellbeing. She also calls for more to do be done.

“There is a fundamental factor behind staff burnout which must be acknowledged and addressed:  persistent staff shortages have normalised excessive workloads and stress at work across the NHS. That, in turn, has meant we have lost far too many of our highly valued staff.

"We need to see extra, dedicated funding for local wellbeing initiatives as the report recommends.

"As we start to address the daunting legacy of the pandemic, it is vitally important we do everything we can to protect staff from unmanageable workloads as well as putting measures in place to address the risk of increased retirements and departures by colleagues who are exhausted.

"That means ensuring the NHS has the right levels of staff to build flexibility into the system, making it easier to cover sickness absences, as well as enabling staff to have more breaks in their work day, a manageable workload and a better work life balance." 

See the full report here.

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