In March 2020, the World Health Organization classified Covid-19 as an international pandemic. Initial guidance from many organisations identified people who might be more vulnerable to covid-19, based on knowledge of those known to be most susceptible to adverse outcomes from the influenza virus. Health conditions divided individuals into those who are “extremely vulnerable,” for whom shielding is required, and those at “increased risk of severe illness.”
In a paper published in the British Medical Journal, we provided guidance for employers on assessing risk for healthcare workers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Risk management should involve training, measuring how well control measures are working, and learning from that experience. A risk management process should also involve consultation with staff. The pandemic has created an opportunity to improve safety in the workplace beyond covid-19, to consider cultural factors, and to ensure that all staff feel included and supported to raise concerns. How such processes have been conducted should also be evaluated to help improve risk management in the current pandemic and in any similar events in future.
As one of the largest organisations in the world, employing around 1.5 million people, and the provider of publicly funded healthcare in the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) should be a role model in workplace health. It should be providing employers with guidance and good practice that can be replicated elsewhere. However, currently the NHS performs poorly on many measures of staff health. For example, sickness absence rates among NHS staff are higher than the average for both the UK public sector and private sector.
The health of NHS staff is a key factor in determining how well the NHS provides healthcare to patients. Improving workplace health and the support available to staff with health problems — such as enabling them to return to work after absence due to sickness — should be priorities for the NHS.
The importance of good working environments in the NHS was emphasised in a 2019 General Medical Council report. The report noted that workplace pressures are associated with risks to patient care and the wellbeing of doctors, leading to “burnout” and poor staff retention and exacerbating shortages of medical professionals in the NHS.
A key message from the report was that the support that doctors received in the workplace from other clinical colleagues and managers was an important factor in determining how well they coped with the pressures of working in the NHS. Doctors at low risk of burnout were more likely to report that they were well supported by their colleagues and were also less likely to be absent because of work related stress.
A healthier NHS workforce would bring substantial benefits for NHS patients and better patient outcomes. NHS workplaces should aim to be centres of excellence for workplace health promotion, setting a positive example and providing case studies, guidance, and support to other public sector and private sector organisations
The full article can be read in the British Medical Journal.