Let me start with the positive and please bear this is mind as you read this post. I adore my job, I can’t imagine doing anything else. In a way that is probably a little unhealthy, it is a lot of what defines me. I found my place and my calling and I’m not going anywhere. That said the last 2 years have been filled with extremely long days and unpaid weekends leading me to be more exhausted and broken than either a PhD or FRCPath exams achieved, partly because for both of those you knew when it would end. So I want to shine a light on how I feel in order for others to feel less alone if they are feeling the same way, and to remind us all that, despite how it feels right now, it has not always been like this and that this too shall pass.
Last night in a press conference our Prime Minster uttered the words ‘extraordinary effort’. It wasn’t in praise, it was a request for all of us in healthcare to make one more effort, to step up to the plate yet again and give it our all for the sake of the country. The thing is, phrasing a request like this doesn’t feel like a call to action to me anymore, it feels more like an insult. Although I acknowledge people’s experiences of the pandemic have been vastly variable, for most healthcare workers we’ve been making an ‘extraordinary effort’ for almost 2 years. Two years of changing guidance, 2 years of practically no down time and in recent times, experiencing both abuse and bad temper, alongside belittling of the things we are doing to find a way out of this i.e. requests to wear masks and to get vaccinated.
Given it is undoubtedly hard right now what can we do to get each other through this (other than make press conference statements – yes I may be a little bitter). This post isn’t based on evidence, I’m just going to talk here from personal experience. I know this is what I tell others off for as anecdotes aren’t facts. However as this is about feelings I can only truly tell it from my perspective.
Acknowledge all burdens are not equal and any single solution won’t fix everything
As a lot of people have pointed out, we may be in the same storm but we are all in very different boats, our experience and well as stressors throughout this aren’t the same. As leaders, colleagues and friends it therefore crucial that we take time to understand the things that are adding to stress levels and impacting our colleagues. For instance, because of my health it is easier for me if I can work from home a couple of days a week. It saves me a 3 hour return commute and gives me space to mentally focus on tasks without interruption. For someone else however, they might find working from home in itself a stressor, they may wish to have distinct work and home separation, they may have a lack of space or family reasons why this makes it harder for them not easier. We need to work on how to check in with our colleagues about what it is that they find difficult and then, where possible, customise our approaches to support them. It takes longer and requires more resource, but if we’re serious about helping each other through this than that is what it is going to take. I believe we should be finding equity rather than equality in our solutions, although fairness is important:
- Equality is providing the same level of opportunity and assistance to all
- Equity is providing various levels of support and assistance depending on specific needs
A little respect goes a long way
At times of stress and challenge it is really easy to close down in terms of empathy and compassion. I hold up my hands to raising my voice in a meeting last week. I did immediately apologise, but it is really difficult with the cognitive and emotional load everyone is experiencing, coupled with me being so tired to always remember to think of others. Every little moment like that if not addressed chips away at the others in the room and adds an unnecessary additional burden. At the moment, in those moments where we may not feel like it, it is even more important enough to be kind to each other.
Whether you are in a formal or informal leadership position, it is also really important right now to acknowledge the work of those around you. It’s easy to have tunnel vision and revert to task thinking when we are all so overwhelmed but people are doing A LOT based on good will. If we want people to go above and beyond then we need to acknowledge it and respect the fact that it is not a given that it will always happen. Saying thank you is still a powerful tool.
The system isn’t set up to support us so lets change it
Two years into the pandemic the system is still not set up to support the work demands that are being placed on the workforce. I have colleagues who have not had a full day off in two years. I do weekends on-call without any acknowledgement in terms of pay or returned time. From conversations I’ve had most IPC teams do not have systems in place to support on-call working, despite the fact that we have just about all had to do it over the last 2 years. We’ve all been doing this because we focus on the needs of the patient and the service, but at some point the service and the system that it sits within needs to be fixed. Services shouldn’t constantly rely on good will and changes need to me made so the system is empowered to support those who work within it. When emergencies and major incidents first happen it takes a while for the infrastructure and the system as a whole to respond, at this point however we need to be looking to the future and working to fix the system we work within. This won’t be the last time we have to face these kind of challenges, although hopefully not over such a protracted period, lets learn the lessons and get measures in place to make it better for everyone moving forward.
The workforce issues are going to get worse before they get better
As I said, I’m not going anywhere, but it would be naïve to say that this is the wider attitude amongst healthcare workers. A number of my colleagues who could retire have done so, more have moved either into non operational roles or out of healthcare all together. I don’t feel we have reached the peak of this yet. I think a lot of people will stay until they feel this aspect is over and then make decisions about what is best for them moving forward, burn out is a real thing right now. This will place even more pressure on those of us who remain. Its takes ~11 years to train a me, there aren’t a lot of people waiting in the wings to swoop in and support. My guess is also that a fair amount of trainees will be included in the numbers who are considering alternative choices. Those of us who remain need to know what the plan is? How are the exhausted workforce who remain going to be supported so they don’t have to then do the work of the 2 people who have left as well as their own? Are we, as we all predict, going to be hit my massive catch up targets when the pandemic is finally over which means there will be no respite to support recovery. The focus of the system seems to (understandably) be on right now but to give people hope for the future we need to know that there is a plan on how we will make it through not just today, but tomorrow and next year.
This isn’t a war, no matter how much our politicians language make it sound like it is
A lot of the language people have utilised linked to the pandemic has very deliberately utilised language reflective of going to war. In some ways this creates a nice psychological short cut in terms of significance and in peoples minds. The problem with it is that most healthcare professionals didn’t enlist to be part of a war, they are not obligated to stay and fight it out. The support systems are not part of the existing infrastructure to enable them to deal with the stress and emotional load we have put upon them. Most of them have given extra hours and supported extra job roles as part of good will, a gift if you like from them to wider society. However, like all gifts these can and should not be taken for granted, they are under no obligation to just keep on giving. We have moved from an emergency situation to a state of life, as much as we don’t want to acknowledge it. It’s a state of life that will not last forever but we cannot expect people to continuously act like they are in emergency response anymore. Plans and language aimed at healthcare workers need to acknowledge this otherwise we are not recognising the reality of most of their lives.
Wellness programmes are not going to fix this
I’ve already come out as not being the biggest fan of wellness programmes, although I know what they are trying to achieve. I’ve talked before about the fact that I think the NHS system has to address the issues and not continuously put the responsibility on individuals to fix. That said I don’t think the system is going to ‘White Knight’ for me anytime soon. I have come up with a strategy for me that means when I reach the point that all I want to do is walk out or walk away I have a bathroom disco. For those of you who don’t know I have a converted bathroom cubicle as my office, hence bathroom disco. I frequently fail to make time for food or even a couple of tea, back in the day I used to have a walk around the block or settle down for a cup of tea, I drink my tea black it takes 20 minutes to cool, when things became too much. There’s no time for any of that right now. When it becomes overwhelming I’ve decided I will allow myself a ~3minute bathroom disco break. I lock the door, put on an energising track and dance like a loon. It not only brings me joy but stops me spiralling and wakes me up enough to re-set myself for the challenge ahead. If we have going to survive this we all need to find a bathroom disco equivalent to get us through the next 5 minutes some days, let alone the next 5 months.
So there it is. I’m going to put on my big girl pants and prepare again for my ‘extraordinary effort’. Those making these requests however should remember that I am so fortunate to know that I will eventually get back to a job I love. Others were not so fortunate prior to this and so they are right now making different choices in response to your plea. Lets follow our words with actions that also enable them to stay!
All opinions on this blog are my own