Burnout in the NHS: ‘Working during the pandemic was one of the hardest things in my career'

One doctor said working through the pandemic has been ‘one of the hardest things in my career’

NHS staff have worked tirelessly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic with long hours, new coronavirus restrictions to adhere to and crowded wards overflowing with people severely ill from the virus.

Many doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff are now overworked and overtired, with NHS and social care staff burnout reaching an “emergency” level.

MPs have warned that staff being burnt out poses a risk to the future of health services with a highly critical report from the Health and Social Care Committee calling for immediate action to support exhausted staff who have worked throughout the pandemic.

Many doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff are now overworked and overtired, with NHS and social care staff burnout reaching an “emergency” level (Graphic: Kim Mogg)

In their new report, the MPs said: “The emergency that workforce burnout has become will not be solved without a total overhaul of the way the NHS does workforce planning.

“After the pandemic, which revealed so many critical staff shortages, the least we can do for staff is to show there is a long-term solution to those shortages, ultimately the biggest driver of burnout.”

‘Working during the pandemic was one of the hardest things in my career’

Dr Aisha Iqbal, who works mainly in paediatric A&E in Leicester, took time off work after exhaustion brought on by the pandemic left her struggling to look after herself.

Dr Iqbal said: “Working during the pandemic was one of the hardest things in my career.

“The rota patterns changed dramatically so there was no enjoying long walks and the garden sun for us during the first lockdown.

“Working nights and long days back to back made me tired and too exhausted to do any selfcare.

“I ended up taking time off simply because working constantly had left me struggling to look after myself.”

Paramedic Zara*, 30, from Sussex, also found that her mental health declined a few months into the pandemic.

By the summer last year, she was struggling to sleep and having daily panic attacks.

She said: “The things that really affected me were taking an elderly person with Covid-19 to hospital without their wife or husband they’ve been with for 50 years and knowing they’re never going to see each other again.

“And it was hard to see some people seriously ill because they were afraid to go to hospital sooner. We attended to a child who died of meningitis because the parents were too afraid of Covid.”

The paramedic said living alone became difficult, and she began to struggle with balancing her mental health.

“At the end of a hard shift when I went home to an empty house and there was no one to talk to, I felt alone,” she said.

Zara also found that new Covid guidance at work heightened her feelings of isolation.

She added: “Work was tough. Being in PPE means you can’t tell who your colleagues are – even the ones I’ve known for years - which is disconcerting. We became fragmented as a group of people which added to my uncertainty and isolation of being alone.”

After reaching out for help, Zara was put in contact with Frontline19, which provides free mental health support for frontline workers, and now speaks to a counsellor on a weekly basis.

Although Zara adds that she loves her job and has “no regrets of joining the ambulance service,” she says that more support for mental health needs to be available, especially now as “the knock-on effect on frontline workers will be seen for years to come.”

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‘The reality is, we have a limit to emotional and physical resilience’

Claire Goodwin-Fee, founder of Frontline19, said that the overwork of healthcare staff has led to them feeling burnt out, especially due to the NHS and ambulance services being particularly overwhelmed with Covid patients.

Ms Goodwin-Fee said that staff also struggled with the lack of PPE and colleagues becoming sick or having to shield, which led to staffing issues.

She said: “This then heaped more stress on people already struggling to cope with treating a new virus and sheer overwhelm in terms of the number of people needing medical treatment for Covid as well as the normal levels of need from the population.”

Dee Johnson, Psychotherapist at Priory Chelmsford Hospital in Essex, said that there is a risk of burnout “if you work or exist in any capacity where you are constantly exposed to high, unusual and continued levels of high octane physical and emotional demands, over-burdened with responsibility and/or an inability to have healthy boundaries.”

Ms Johnson said: “The reality is, we have a limit to emotional and physical resilience.

“There is only so much we can sustain being caring and compassionate, capable and being able to always achieve - whilst under constant exposure to extreme pressure, fear of not being good enough, fear of letting people down and with no or limited respite.”

This is something which Lee Chambers, Environmental Psychologist and Wellbeing Consultant, reiterates, as he explains medical professionals and those in healthcare roles are vulnerable to burnout due to “the nature of their roles requiring empathy to give good care and create cultures of recovery for their patients.”

Mr Chambers adds that burnout is “amplified by the fact that healthcare employees have to be flexible and are likely to experience trauma and pain in their everyday working environments.”

He notes that although burnout symptoms are individual, it often “manifests itself as continued exhaustion, feeling detached from self and work, feeling cynical about their role and other people, and a lack of feeling that their meaningful jobs are significant.”

Mr Chambers adds: “These all impact the level of care that healthcare staff are able to give to their patients, and it’s never easy to be open about these issues when you are in a medical position.”

*Zara wished to keep her real name anonymous.