MPs Declare 'Emergency' Over Staff Burnout in the NHS and Social Care

Peter Russell

June 08, 2021

Workforce burnout across the NHS and social care in England has reached an "emergency level", MPs warned today.

In a highly critical report, the Commons Health and Social Care Committee said that only a total overhaul of workforce planning could provide a solution to a long-term problem that had been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

During an inquiry, initiated in July last year, MPs heard that the pandemic had increased workforce pressures "exponentially", with NHS Providers finding that 92% of trusts had concerns about staff wellbeing, stress, and burnout.

Even before COVID-19 took hold in the UK, a survey published by the British Medical Journal found that a third of doctors who responded described themselves as 'burned out', with those in emergency medicine and general practice most impacted.

The 2019 NHS Staff Survey found stress on an upward trend, with 40.3% of respondents saying they had felt unwell in a 12 month period as a result of work-related stress – up from 36.8% in 2016. More recent fieldwork suggested that the figure might be as high as 44% as a result of COVID.

'Exhausted' Staff

Witnesses told the Committee of their worry about the "exhaustion of large groups of staff", many of whom had gone "above and beyond" in their work during the pandemic, often in the face of their own traumas. Social care workers expressed their "heartbreak" at an increase in deaths of those they were caring for, while also feeling "abandoned" because the early focus in the first wave of the pandemic concentrated on the NHS.

Many witnesses described workforce burnout as "the highest in the history of the NHS and care systems".

Jeremy Hunt MP, the committee chair, and former Health Secretary, said: "Workforce burnout across the NHS and care systems now presents an extraordinarily dangerous risk to the future functioning of both services."

Inadequate Workforce Planning

The report concluded that staff shortages across the NHS and social care was the biggest driver of burnout among staff, and that workforce planning was "at best opaque and at worst was responsible for unacceptable pressure" on those working in both systems.

"An absence of proper, detailed workforce planning has contributed to this, and was exposed by the pandemic with its many demands on staff," Mr Hunt said. "However, staff shortages existed long before COVID-19."

Available funding took precedence over the level of demand and the staffing capacity needed to service it, the report said. Also, there was a lack of any "accurate, public projection" of workforce requirements in specialisms over the next 5 to 10 years.

Mr Hunt said that NHS and social care staffing plans "should be guided by the need to ensure that the long-term supply of doctors, nurses, and other clinicians is not constrained by short-term deficiencies in the number trained", and that "failure to address this will lead to not just more burnout but more expenditure on locum doctors and agency nurses."

Also in its recommendations, MPs called for an assessment of mental wellbeing in both the NHS and social care sectors. Additional funded support for staff mental health would need to be maintained as both services recover from the effects of the pandemic.

'There Are Simply Not Enough Staff'

Responding to the report, Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said: "We’ve been warning for some time that there are simply not enough staff in the NHS to meet the healthcare needs of our population, both now and in future.

"There were close to 90,000 vacancies across the NHS in England before the pandemic and the last 18 months have been brutal on the workforce."

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said: "For some time, we have been calling on the Government to embrace a longer-term approach to workforce planning, and to work with the NHS to deliver a fully costed and funded workforce strategy. This report underlines the importance and urgency of taking this approach, for the good of staff and patients."

Suzie Bailey, director of leadership and organisational development at The King's Fund, commented: "There is an urgent need for a fully funded workforce strategy to increase recruitment, tackle staff burnout, and support health and care leaders to create compassionate and inclusive workplace cultures that staff want to work in. Without such a plan, we will continue to witness the vicious cycle that sees workforce shortages lead to overstretched staff leaving their profession prematurely."

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