Burnout and poor staff wellbeing must be treated as a ‘public health issue’, Professor Dame Clare Gerada warned MPs.
Addressing the Health and Social Care Select Committee, the RCGP president said that addressing staff burnout requires ‘full-scale, systematic change’ in how the NHS addresses its staff’s ‘endemic’ wellbeing problems.
She said: ‘You have to treat this now like a public health problem, with primary, secondary, tertiary prevention, getting to people that are sick and treating them.’
It comes after the GMC warned that GPs are most likely to ‘bear the brunt’ of burnout, with the proportion of GPs ‘struggling with workload’ in 2021 more than double the previous year.
Professor Gerada told the Committee today that NHS organisations must consider staff health ‘as important as…finance’, including by introducing non-executive leaders at board level to oversee wellbeing.
She said: ‘At board level you need a non-executive director whose sole responsibility is looking at the proxy issues around wellbeing, which include complaints, sanctions, grievance responses.’
She also called for a new arms-length body, similar to the CQC, with the purpose of holding the NHS to account on wellbeing issues and helping organisations embed good practice.
3,300 GPs sought mental health support in first year of pandemic
Professor Gerada also said that GPs made up around two-thirds of the 5,000 doctors seeking mental health support from the NHS Practitioner Health confidential service between March 2020 and April 2021.
She said: ‘We’ve seen it in all the professional groups, but GPs are worse. GPs represent about 60-70% of that 5,000, and the other specialties represent about 30-40%.’
When asked if the support available to NHS staff with long Covid was adequate, she said she had heard accounts of staff ‘being sacked because’ they have the condition, but noted that this was a ‘symptom’ of the organisation not being able to care for staff.
She also said: ‘You can’t get burnout if you’re not on a burning platform, and working in the NHS almost entirely is working on a burning platform. And we have to put that fire out, not just patch people up who are burnt.’
Unions recently warned that healthcare staff had been ‘wrung dry’ by Covid pressures, with around two-thirds of staff saying that experienced burnout and felt overwhelmed.
Covid has ‘adversely affected’ GP wellbeing
It comes as a study published in the BJGP found that the Covid-19 pandemic has ‘adversely affected’ GPs’ wellbeing around the world.
The systematic review, which looked at 31 studies, found that in terms of burnout, the greatest difficulties were related to emotional exhaustion, with 24.5% to 46.2% of GPs reporting high burnout symptoms.
The study said: ‘The Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated substantial changes in primary care around the world; GPs rapidly changed working practices and managed evolving guidelines amid uncertainty and personal risk.
‘This review of international literature highlights the difficulties that GPs have experienced across healthcare settings during the pandemic and shows there are high levels of work-related stress and burnout.’
The authors called for ‘policy and infrastructure’ to support GPs during this ‘challenging time’.
They added: ‘Studies included in this review highlight GPs’ plans to leave medicine, both to protect family members from risk of infection and because of the effects on their psychological wellbeing.
‘Understanding the key sources of stress for GPs could enable an evidence-based approach to the development of future policy as the pandemic progresses, which may help to protect the future wellbeing of the workforce.’
This week, the BMA GP Committee deputy chair said every GP practice should ‘realistically’ close its list due to the workload pressures general practice is facing.
A version of this story was first published on our sister title Healthcare Leader.