The work starts when the clapping stops
Dr Reina Popat, GP
Let’s talk about what today’s ‘heroes’ needed yesterday
Recently, my husband got significant positive attention on Twitter and in the press after he posted how appreciative and overwhelmed he was to receive the first class care and attention given by Project Wingman, a mini “first class lounge” created by airline pilots and cabin crews within a hospital during this COVID-19 pandemic. They are doing some fantastic work supporting frontline healthcare workers with tea and sympathy before, during and after shifts, giving them the chance to debrief and unload with a fellow professional, familiar with working in stressful circumstances.
There is no denying my husband’s team had experienced a distressing shift. A month prior, there would have been no such response. Yet distress at work will have been an experience that has occurred for him and countless other colleagues prior to the pandemic and which they are likely to experience again, long after we have returned to ‘business as usual’.
Has it really taken a global pandemic for us collectively as a system to honour the fact that staff require a comfortable place to sit, refreshments and a place to process the impact of their work? And what can we do to ensure that goodwill now translates to a lasting shift in the paradigm moving forwards? What can we decide individually, and what is possible collectively?
Clap for Carers: A bittersweet soundtrack
I want to acknowledge the positive things coming out of this experience. I do. The pandemic has brought forward the absolute best of our society. We have had designer PPE stitched by British brands, protective equipment made in secondary school Design and Technology suites and huge amounts of money raised to support the pandemic response. There are many, many tales of heroism and compassion from the front line, retired workforce returning to help their colleagues, a particularly special centenarian marching his garden for the NHS (thank you Captain Tom Moore) and thousands of beautiful acts of citizen service that light up my heart. At the same time, I’m unsettled. Whilst healthcare workers are being clapped in the streets and labelled as ‘heroes,’ I want to really examine under the surface at why I feel conflicted as I watch it unfold.
We have been sitting on a tsunami.
Similar acts of public generosity occurred after the bombings in Manchester and Tavistock Square, when hospital staff received more food donations than they could eat and countless messages from the public to thank them. Not long after, in the backdrop, our health and care system suffered assault after assault in terms of funding and attention to workforce morale, asking more and more from fewer and fewer.
The system and its people were overstretched well before the pandemic hit. It was commonplace for many of my colleagues to feel daily stress about work. The Phillip’s Future Health Index 2020 report (https://www.philips.com/a-w/about/news/future-health-index/reports/2020/the-age-of-opportunity.html) explored the expectations and experiences of the next generation of healthcare professionals around technology, training and job satisfaction. The survey was conducted across 15 countries amongst 3,000 healthcare professionals under 40. It found
- 3 out of 4 younger professionals suffered from work stress regularly
- More than 1 in 3 have considered leaving the profession
- Other than salary, factors around collaboration and autonomy were key factors in attracting and retaining talent in medicine. 89% deemed workplace culture to be important when choosing a place of work and 75% cited work/life balance as a determining factor.
Nearly one in four doctors in training in the UK, and one in five trainers said they felt burnt out to a high or very high degree because of their work (2018, General Medical Council (GMC) National Training Surveys (NTS))
We cannot address our challenges of the future without acknowledging where we are coming from, where we are in the present and being truthful about the culture that we have all been part of creating.
It is my sincere hope that we all take stock after this pandemic is over and encourage our memories to run deep and into the long-term. To fund our NHS properly, to provide its staff with the care they need for themselves as well as for others. For the public to thank us when they cast their electoral votes and to champion it with their voices, their time and their actions, through responsible use of the services and tending to their mental health, their bodies and their lifestyles, so that the NHS we were praying would be there to save our lives, is still there to do the same in the future.
It is also time for the healthcare professionals to acknowledge that our long term sustainability depends on healthy, fulfilled, happy and rested professionals, with professional wellbeing in healthcare being seen as a worthy investment, not an oversight reserved for those with a more sensitive or weaker constitution. Something that deserves its place on national and government agendas and translates into lasting culture change.