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GP chief calls for independent well-being regulator

Failure to put measures in place to support the mental health of staff could see the NHS collapse from within.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Healthcare practitioners have warned that failure to address working conditions and mental health concerns within the NHS could see the health service face “a workforce crisis like we’ve never seen”.

Issues of “burnout”, bullying and rising suicide rates among those working within the NHS were heard by the health and social care committee, chaired by the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The president of the Royal College of GPs, Clare Gerada, said that “brave solutions”, including introducing a regulator to oversee the support given to NHS staff, could help save the service from falling in on itself.

“I think we should abandon the word ‘burnout’,” Gerada, told the committee on Tuesday (22 March). “I think ‘burnout; is too gentle a term for the mental distress that’s going on amongst our workforce.”

She added: “The distress that’s caused – right across the board – [is] around the intensity of the workload; and it’s a spiralling problem because the more staff that leave, the more the intensity of the workload increases.”

A 2020 survey of NHS staff found that 44 per cent of workers feel unwell as a result of work-related stress – up from 40 per cent the previous year. More than 300 NHS workers attempted suicide during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a study by mental health support charity the Laura Hyde Foundation revealed.

When asked by the committee what measures could be put in place to tackle mental health issues within the health service, Gerada referred to the introduction of an overarching body that oversees how individual trusts support the mental health of their staff. “I think we need an independent arms-length body that holds the NHS staff in their mind,” she said.

The body should have “the same power, and the same resources” as the Care Quality Commission, the regulator of all health and social care in England, Gerada added.

She continued: “It’s not about Zumba classes or mindfulness or swimming with dolphins. It’s much more endemic; you have to treat this like a public health problem… This is something that requires full-scale, systematic change in how we address the well-being of the people that are doing all the caring.”

Also speaking at the committee session was Vishal Sharma, consultant cardiologist at the Royal Liverpool and Broadgreen University Hospital NHS Trust, who said bullying within the workforce was partly a consequence of the levels of pressure staff endure.

“It’s not one thing – it’s the whole system is under incredible pressure,” he told the committee. “I’m sure there is, of course, true bullying, but most of this [pressure] is just transferred, so you’ve got all this pressure on you.  

“Sometimes it’s transferred on to other people and that’s not acceptable – but it’s a symptom of all the pressure that you’re under.”

Short-term solutions, including the introduction of paid “reflective time” for staff and a review of the “interaction between pensions and tax rules” for senior staff, Gerada and Sharma said, will need to be supplemented by working conditions that entice more staff to join, and stay, with the NHS.

“These are big-ticket issues,” said Gerada. “We’ve got a burning platform for the whole [of] the NHS and if we don’t address it, then five years from now, we’ll be in an even worse position.”

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