Now is the time to support NHS staff’s wellbeing

Protecting healthcare workers’ physical and mental health is essential to prevent a perfect storm of absences, which could result in disastrous consequences for the NHS.

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It looks like the United Kingdom is in the midst of a coronavirus second wave which history tells us is a common pattern with these viral pandemics. Winter is a challenging time for the NHS every year due to the rise in respiratory illnesses on top of the routine cases causing systems with little slack to bulge at the seams. There are thoughts that the second wave of the pandemic will be 10 times harder than the first because you’ve got staff exhaustion, you’ve got elective recovery, you’ve got winter, and you have got COVID all happening at the same time.

So, we are now faced with managing the wellbeing of our staff both from a physical and mental health standpoint and this will be a significant challenge for healthcare organisations.

Protecting the workforce to enable them to work is essential.

The latest NHS England data has shown the number of COVID-19-related absences of staff, either through sickness or self-isolation, has risen from 11,952 on 1 September to 19,493 on 1 October. Staff absence has almost doubled in the North West in this time as well – from 2,664 to 5,142 during the same period. Figures from earlier in the year from NHS Digital recorded that from March to May overall sickness absence rates peaked nationally at 6.2%.

This increase staff absence is having a profound impact on the ability of the NHS to deliver both urgent care services and routine work where there is little slack in the system. Furthermore, this is on top of a significant backlog of work causing long waiting lists as a result of the first wave virus/lockdown.

The time it is taking for NHS staff to get tested is also compounding the staff absence issue. A survey by the RCP in September 2020 suggested that 40% of the doctors surveyed who were off work said it is because they are self-isolating while awaiting a test for someone in their household. It is vital that those key workers and their families have rapid access to testing with the results being prioritised to minimise the time they need to take off work.

Along with the physical causes of absence from work there is increasing evidence that the UK issleepwalking into a mental health crisis.

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Luke Koupparis

Medical editor, OnMedica

I am a GP and also am a medical contributor for OnMedica.
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