Real risk that thousands of NHS staff will leave unless they are allowed to recover

The NHS risks losing thousands of nurses, doctors and other key workers in the longer term unless they are given the time and space to recover.

24 March 2021

The NHS risks losing thousands of nurses, doctors and other key workers in the longer term unless they are given the time and space to recover from the pandemic. Without this, the Government will fail to meet its key manifesto target of recruiting an extra 50,000 nurses, and it will take even longer for the NHS to address the impact of the pandemic on waiting times and other services. The NHS Confederation report Putting people first: supporting NHS staff in the aftermath of COVID-19 warns that staff need to recovery time following the past 12 months.

The NHS Confederation, which represents the whole health system, is calling on the Government to act now to avert a staffing crisis in the NHS as the country prepares to emerge from a year of restrictions. With the NHS still facing the threat from coronavirus and a massive backlog of treatment, there is a real risk that exhausted NHS staff may leave their roles unless expectations of their workload mean they are allowed time to recover.

While the NHS is starting to see an increase in applications to degree level courses, this is set against the backdrop of levels of stress and burnout due to the last 12 months, which threatens to increase NHS vacancies. The NHS has close to 90,000 vacant posts, and results from the biggest survey of NHS staff, published earlier this month, show that almost two thirds of NHS staff believe there are not enough people in their organisations to enable them to do their job properly. More than four in ten say they feel unwell as result of their job, a figure that rises to half of all staff working in frontline COVID care.

The NHS Confederation is warning the Government that the NHS cannot bounce back from a year-long COVID crisis into full recovery mode unless NHS leaders are given the tools and resources they need to locally support and nurture the health service’s most valuable resource -its people. This will need to include targeted support for staff from black and minority ethnic backgrounds on whom the pandemic has taken its greatest toll. The government must also give teams in the NHS hope that there is a longer-term plan which will fill the vacancies in their organisations. Finally, the Government must level with the public about the scale of the challenge ahead when it comes to tackling lengthening waiting lists and responding to the expected surge in mental health support that is widely anticipated.

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said:

“The people who work in the NHS are at its heart, and we must acknowledge that they have experienced a year like no other. We know that many staff will have been traumatised by what they have seen and experienced in recent months.

“There will be a temptation – not least amongst the teams themselves - to dive straight into tackling the waiting list for care that has ballooned to 4.6 million. But NHS leaders are clear that the NHS cannot bounce back without first giving NHS staff the time, space and support they need to properly recover. If we don’t look after them, then we cannot hope to look after patients.

“If we are going to get the NHS back on track, then we have to put the wellbeing of staff at the centre of our recovery plans and give them everything they need to get themselves back on track. This must be underpinned by urgent investment to address long-standing vacancies in nursing and other key professions - this is at the root of the long-term workload pressures facing the NHS and its people."

The NHS Confederation report sets out a series of actions needed to protect staff health and wellbeing in the recovery phase of the pandemic

Rest and recovery: NHS staff are not able to undertake a period of decompression in the same way that armed forces personnel do after military deployments. But building in time for staff to rest, recuperate and recover will be essential. Some staff will have built up leave that they will need to take, so NHS organisations will need to deploy tailored approaches for local staff that provide the right balance between enabling staff to rest and for managing ongoing demand.

Health and wellbeing: Continued national investment is needed which enables NHS organisations to supplement their local support to staff. Recent investment in creating wellbeing hubs, which support staff to stay mentally well, and the rollout of interventions such as restorative supervision, are hugely welcomed. But many of these nationally funded initiatives are due to come to an end in late March. Much of this support has been invaluable during the pandemic and needs to continue.

Recognition and reward: Valuing and recognising the contributions and sacrifices made by NHS staff over the last year will be crucial to retaining staff. This must be underpinned by a sustainable, funded and modern total reward package which supports both the long-term attraction and retention of NHS staff. The Government’s recent announcement that it intends to provide NHS staff with a 1per cent pay increase risks demoralising workers and harming efforts to retain staff.

Improving staff experience: We must take this opportunity to improve the day-to-day experiences of staff working in the NHS. This includes providing high quality places for staff to take rest, eat and hydrate; ensuring that staff have time to take breaks within their shifts; and ensuring they have more control and autonomy over how they organise their work. We also need concerted efforts to develop a compassionate and inclusive culture which tackles wide disparities in staff experience, especially among BAME staff.

Tackling vacancies: All of this must be met with investment to address long-standing vacancies across nursing and other key professions. Vacancies lie at the heart of the workload pressures staff face. Only 40 per cent of staff believe their organisation has enough staff for them to do their job properly. Overlay this with an increase in demand for care, and it is clear the pressure on NHS staff will not subside. The Government has ambitious targets to recruit 50,000 nurses by the end of this parliament, but failure to act on the issues outlined here will result in this target being missed. We need a fully costed and funded long term workforce plan that addresses supply and vacancy issues. The Health Foundation estimates this will require £1 billion of additional investment by 2024.