Occupational health needs to be accessible to all NHS staff, says BMA

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The British Medical Association (BMA) has called for more mental health and wellbeing support for those in the profession – including assurances that occupational health services are accessible to all healthcare workers and have sufficient capacity.

It found that almost half (45%) of doctors in England are suffering with depression, burnout and anxiety, with around a third of these starting that these feelings had worsened in the Covid-19 pandemic.

The association said there was a need for a long-term strategy that supported the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of those in the NHS, one that lasted beyond the heightened work pressures healthcare workers were experiencing during the current pandemic.

The call by the doctors’ union came as last month it emerged that the government is “urgently” working with the NHS to increase access to occupational health provision during the pandemic, but that its NHS People Plan, which is due to outline measures to speed up access to OH for NHS staff, will also now be delayed until the autumn.

The BMA said it had seen a 40% uplift in the use of its wellbeing support services over the past three months, while a previous BMA survey found that one in five doctors felt they did not have access to the mental health support they required.

One doctor told the association: “Staff are extremely worried and distressed, and this has been made worse by the introduction of new rotas that have increasing number of anti-social hours. When does this leave time for rest or any sort of normality?”

Considering OH support in particular, the BMA’s ‘The mental health and wellbeing of the medical workforce – now and beyond Covid-19’ report said the provision and funding of NHS OH services was inconsistent.

“For example, in England the current provision of a centrally funded and commissioned OH service for primary care does not go far enough to support all General Practice staff while in Scotland all practice staff can access comprehensive OH support for free,” it said.

“In parallel to this, OH services are facing capacity issues which need to be addressed so that they can effectively support the wider NHS workforce and system. We are concerned that the current demands on OH services are making it difficult for disabled doctors and those with long-term health conditions to access the support and adjustments needed to keep them safe and well.”

The BMA recommended that the government and devolved administrations needed to ensure the NHS OH workforce could meet future demand by addressing underlying training, recruitment and retention issues.

BMA council deputy chair and lead for wellbeing, Dr David Wrigley, said: “Many doctors have experienced a significant rise in their workload and have had to deal with the added anxiety of concerns over PPE and their own safety while delivering care on the frontline during the pandemic.

“It is unacceptable that almost half of all frontline workers are carrying this burden. The NHS must step up its mental health support offer to all staff during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Supporting the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of the workforce must be a top priority for the NHS for the long-term.”

Other recommendations made by the BMA included:

  • ensuring that wellbeing support services were available for all doctors working across all healthcare settings
  • ensuring services were inclusive and accessible to all NHS doctors, and met their needs
  • making sure staff with significant mental health conditions could access appropriate treatment when needed.
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