Burnout, exhaustion and industrial unrest. After almost three years on the front line, hospital staff have had enough. While the rest of the world likes to think we have moved on from COVID-19, that’s easier said than done for healthcare workers.
During the pandemic, many hospital employees faced excessive workload and distressing exposure to high levels of sickness and death. Some became sick themselves, or saw colleagues and friends die from the disease. They need time to rest, recover and come to terms with what happened.
And while the intense COVID-19 workload has reduced, the pressure has ramped up in other ways. Big backlogs of care built up during the pandemic, leading to long waiting lists. In some cases, this exacerbated staff shortages dating back to before the pandemic.
Many hospitals now have high numbers of unfilled vacancies, increasing the pressure on the staff who remain. No wonder many are voting with their feet. Some people are finding work in other institutions, or outside of healthcare. Unions are balloting for industrial action over pay and conditions.
The NHS Staff Survey for 2021 found that less than a third – 27% - of the workforce believed there were enough staff at their organisation for them to do their job properly. The US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in summer 2022 that healthcare staff felt ‘exhausted, helpless and heartbroken,’ and pledged that he would act to bring about change.
So what can organisations do?
The first imperative is to create a working environment that protects employees from harm, including unsustainable workload. With workforce shortages, this means prioritizing the work that needs to be done. That happened during the immediate COVID-19 crisis; it can happen again. Piling more work onto an exhausted workforce leads only to sickness and ultimately staff leaving the hospital. No well-being programmes can patch up a chronically over-stretched team.
Healthy workplaces also ensure their staff have the resources to work safely – sufficient PPE, access to healthy food and water, and a place to rest during breaks. While this may sound basic, it is not always the case.
Once workers are protected, their well-being can be promoted and supported. That’s where programmes to promote healthy behaviours come in, along with training for managers, well-being champions, long-term support to quit smoking or take exercise, and other initiatives.
For those staff whose health is already compromised by burnout, stress and illness, hospitals need compassionate, clear and individually-focused strategies to help them return to health.
There are plenty of resources that can help. The international standard ISO 45003 demonstrates how hospitals can implement global good practice on managing psychological health and safety, while BSI’s Prioritizing People Model© sets out a complete, best practice framework on workplace well-being.
The WHO’s Guidelines on Mental Health at Work set out evidence-based measures that governments, employers and individuals can take to protect, promote and support mental well-being.
Sounds expensive, at a time of global belt-tightening? Maybe, but not half as expensive as not investing in employee well-being.
Professor Bernadette Melnyk, chief well-being officer at Ohio State university college of nursing, says the well-being programme she oversees has an impressive ROI of $2 to $3 for every $1 invested. Savings come from reduced sickness absence, staff turnover, healthcare claims and improved productivity.
The world relied on our hospital staff during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now they need support in turn. Failure to meet that need could mean, as Surgeon General Murthy warned, that we no longer have a functioning healthcare system to take care of us in future.
You can learn more and read our whitepaper on this topic, ‘Prioritizing people: How can hospitals protect the well-being of their workforce after COVID-19?'