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NHS leaders must give staff time to ‘access psychological support’

Published on: 21 Oct 2021

NHS trusts must give their workforce the time to access nationally funded psychological therapies, a leading doctor has warned, as the ‘tired’ health service prepares to face a difficult winter.

Fiona Donald, the new president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists, told HSJ in an interview that the anaesthetic and intensive care workforce have been working “incredibly hard and in difficult circumstances” and needed to be given the time to access to psychological support services.

Earlier this year, NHS England put £15m into increasing mental health support for NHS staff in the wake of the pandemic, launching 40 mental health and wellbeing hubs. NHSE’ chief people officer, Prerana Issar, said at the time: “To all my NHS colleagues, it’s imperative that you reach out for support if you need it.”

Dr Donald said: “I know a lot of trusts have paid provision for people to access to psychotherapists and psychologists, but if you have no time to do that then it’s not that helpful.”

“We need to allow people the time to access them,” Dr Donald stressed. “It is for the leadership all the way up organisations [to understand] that the wellbeing of their staff is something that will pay dividends.”

Dr Donald stressed that the RCOA’s members want to work efficiently through the backlog of surgical patients, but she said in order to do that the workforce must be given time to recover.

“We can’t have service recovery from where we are at the moment without staff recovery and without staff being rested,” she said.

“That doesn’t mean everyone has to stop working for six weeks but we can’t expect people to carry on working at a relentless rate.”

“People are being asked to do more when there are not enough of us, people are tired and have spent a prolonged period working extra hours. There is a feeling of [there is] no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Recent surveys carried out by the RCOA suggested that feeling under-valued and with a poor work-life balance are the main reasons for its members looking to leave the health service, and with 39 per cent of its members over 50, Dr Donald warned early retirement could have a “big impact”.

She added that the pension tax has made it “easier for people to leave than to stay”.

Dr Donald said there is also a fear among college members at the prospect of a winter with a mixture of flu and covid, “not fear for ourselves but a fear for the reduction in capacity there will inevitably be”, she said.

She suggested reframing waiting lists as “preparation lists”, which could help get patients ready for their surgery rather than letting them “fester” and become more unwell.