As England heads towards a second national lockdown this week, and amid fears exhausted healthcare staff have still not recovered from the first wave, NHS occupational health teams are being urged to signpost clinicians who are struggling mentally to the NHS Practitioner Health support service.
Lucy Warner, chief executive of the service, told a recent conference that OH and NHS Practitioner Health need to be working together to raise each other’s profile as a resource available during the pandemic.
“Many clinicians, we find, don’t necessarily understand the role of occupational health; they view it as ‘those people who check when you’re about to start a new job’. But they don’t necessarily see the value that occupational health can bring when you’re struggling,” Warner said during the virtual conference run by Westminster Health Forum, ‘The health workforce and delivering the ambitions in the NHS People Plan’.
NHS Practitioner Health is a free, confidential service available to doctors and dentists across England via a self-referral phone line, website or app.
“For us, being able to liaise with occupational health when we’re embarking on treatment, but especially when somebody has completed treatment and they are looking to return to the workplace, can be really, really helpful,” said Warner.
“Occupational health is so key in determining what those adjustments could be, and making sure people can continue to stay well once they’re back and once they’re recovered.
“I think the other value for us in occupational health is the promotion; really making people aware that, if they’re struggling, if they come to occupational health, that they can then signpost them to us as a confidential service where they can get help,” she added.
Referral data from the service illustrated the extent of the emotional toll from the first wave of the pandemic, Warner highlighted. Early on in the spring, for example, the service had seen lots of cases of “anticipatory anxiety”, where people were anxious about what was coming. This was followed during April and May by more people reporting guilt about having to take time off for their mental health.
“There was guilt about when they left that workplace, the impact on their team still working on the wards or wherever they happened to be,” she said.
With a second wave now upon us, exhaustion and burnout were real worries, she added. “In October we have seen all those signs of people starting to feel very, very tired, feeling exhausted, feeling like their morale is dropping and they are losing motivation.
“We are getting lots of people questioning whether their vocation is still what they want it to be; whether being a clinician, whether working in medicine, is the right thing for them right now. I think that is a real warning sign for us. We have to think very carefully about how we support staff as we go through these next stages,” Warner added.
Warner’s warning came as NHS England and NHS Improvement last month said it intends to invest £15m in rolling out expanded mental health support services for NHS staff.
The money will be used to create a national support service for critical care staff, more outreach and assessment services, and more wellbeing and psychological training.
NHS national mental health director Claire Murdoch said: “It is crucial that the NHS staff working tirelessly to protect the health of the nation throughout this pandemic are given the support they deserve, which is why we are announcing this expansion of services.”