A handwritten sign in a window reading: 'Please be patient we are very understaffed'

23 May 2022

It’s crunch time for the NHS staffing crisis

We all know there’s a staffing crisis in the NHS. But what does that really mean?

Figures published in March showed there are now 110,000 vacancies across the NHS in England. That’s about one in every 10 posts.

Rising workload, stress and burnout

Obviously, that makes things a lot harder for the staff who are still there. It’s no surprise that workload, stress and burnout are all rising fast. In the last NHS staff survey, nearly half of respondents (47%) said they’d felt unwell through stress in the last year. It’s a figure that’s been going up every year since 2017. The same number say they feel worn out at the end of their working day or shift. And nearly a third (31%) don’t have enough energy left for friends and family outside work.

The impact on patient care

While bad enough in itself, there’s a selfish reason why most of us should care very much about that.

It isn’t just hard to get seen in the NHS now (latest waiting list figures show that one in nine people in the UK is now waiting for treatment), but increasingly, this starts to impact on the quality of care NHS staff feel that they are able to give.

Fewer than 7 in 10 NHS staff said they’d be happy for a friend or relative to be treated at the organisation where they work.

That number has dropped more than 6% since the last survey.

A downward spiral

And things can only get worse, it seems, to turn the song lyric on its head. Unsurprisingly, a lot of NHS staff would like a job that doesn’t leave them worn out and emotionally exhausted. More than 30% said they are thinking about leaving. Staff have told us they could work privately for better pay and a better work life balance. Some want to leave healthcare all together.

Put it all together and the picture is deeply worrying.

Urgent steps are needed now

Just as there isn’t one reason why things are so bad, there isn’t one easy solution to get the NHS back on track. But there are things that the government and employers can and must do urgently, which will make a real difference.

  1. A decent pay rise will signal to existing staff that they are valued, and help to keep experienced health workers in their jobs.
  2. Putting an urgent retention package in place NOW will give NHS staff the certainty they need to plan their finances and avoid resignations while staff wait for a pay rise that is already more than six weeks overdue.
  3. Employers can make sure that staff are paid at the right level for the work that they do, by checking they are in the right pay band.
  4. Employers also need to pay staff properly for overtime, and act to limit excessive hours to protect peoples’ health and wellbeing.
  5. Finally, where shortages are creating risks to staff wellbeing and patient care, special payments (Recruitment and Retention Premia) should be used to target the jobs and areas with the worst shortages.

The NHS staffing crisis could mean a vicious downwards spiral of empty jobs, staff stress and burnout, and worsening care. Or it could mean an opportunity to tackle the problems that have been building for a decade, and begin making the NHS a great place to work.

The original meaning of the word ‘crisis’ is a decision point. It’s time for the government and NHS employers to make a choice.