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NHS Strikes & Burnout: A Call For Change

In December 2022, for the first time in 106 years, the Royal College of Nursing decided to strike after a ballot vote of more than 300,000 members. Shortly after, ambulance workers similarly voted to strike. Now, junior doctors are balloting to strike with the results coming out imminently. This, I believe, is an indicator of a system being stretched to its limit, and as a current medical student in London, sadly does not come as a surprise to me.

Over the last 2 years of my training, I have seen the toll that long hours, high levels of stress, and treatment backlogs take on us — healthcare workers — and on the system we are working in. I have seen how a lunch break is now a rarity on long shifts, and that we can barely have a quick toilette break.

As one junior doctor says, “You feel like you’re being put in a situation where you’re set up to fail, because you don’t have the resources and help around you to succeed”.

I have seen the struggle with resources, from a lack of medical equipment, PPE like masks and gowns, and patient beds, to inadequate technologies and insufficient training. In recent months, the lack of resources has become evident, with many patients being treated in corridors, and vital supplies such as portable oxygen running low.

As a future doctor in the NHS, this worries me. We enter the profession wanting to help people, however when the resources don’t allow for this, it is devastating and leads to high levels of burnout.

Doctors are experiencing workplace burnout at the highest levels ever recorded. 39% of junior doctors report burnout to a high or very high degree, and 51% of doctors in training describe their work as emotionally exhausting to a high or very high degree.

These figures are not exclusive to doctors, and experiences of burnout are seen across NHS healthcare workers — a significant contributing factor, alongside real-terms pay cuts, to the recent nursing and ambulance strikes.

The question we then have to ask, is what is causing this burnout?

A report by the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee has found staff shortages are ultimately the biggest contributor to workforce burnout. These shortages often lead to one healthcare worker doing the work of three people, which is not sustainable long-term. With staff shortages also comes increased waiting time, with more than 1/3 of all patients waiting more than the target four hours to be seen in Accident & Emergency.

Workforce shortages ultimately come down to workforce training and retention.

But a career in healthcare is becoming less feasible due to the significant lack of resources, difficult working conditions, and real terms pay cuts only exacerbated by the rise in the cost of living.

Since 2010, experienced nurses in England have taken a 20% pay cut to their salary, while doctors pay has fallen by up to 30% since 2008. In the last year, 50% of junior doctors have struggled to pay for heating and light in their homes.

While healthcare workers do not choose their career path for the pay, if we cannot afford the basic cost of living and payments for students loans, it is no longer a viable career path.

Indeed, more than 50% of staff in the NHS feel undervalued and overworked, and I can see the ripple effect of this atmosphere on medical students. My colleagues and I talk nearly every week about what we will do when we graduate, with many talking about leaving the profession or moving abroad. I have also been told countless times by doctors on placement to ‘leave while you can’.

According to new analysis of NHS digital figures over the last year, over 400 healthcare workers in England leave the NHS every week due to work-life balance pressures.

As healthcare workers, we ultimately do our jobs to help people. It’s incredibly disheartening, however, when we’re not able to do this due to a lack of resources and support.

We carry out our job with a duty of care and moral obligation to our patients. This duty guides our decision-making, and therefore the decision to strike is not one that is taken lightly.

I hope the strikes are a wake-up call to the government to take action, as I do not believe the NHS can be sustained if things continue as they are.



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