Today, the NHS celebrates its 72nd anniversary and the nation will get together to clap once again for the work of all its staff.
But it is also a moment to reflect on what we can give back to those who risked their health to save lives during the pandemic. Gratitude is one thing, but our NHS heroes deserve more than that. They deserve the highest levels of care for their own health and wellbeing, as they perform their duties.
We need a more consistent and better co-ordinated approach to high-quality occupational health support, in order to help staff remain healthy amidst the vast array of pressures they continue to face.
I’ve spent part of the last few months volunteering in the occupational health department at my local NHS trust. As a doctor specialising in occupational health, and with the NHS facing the biggest challenge in its history, I like many others wanted to do my bit to help.
I saw first-hand how NHS staff, many of whom were junior doctors or students, worked under relentless pressure on Covid-19 wards.
For any clinician working in that environment, the fear of the virus can hang over you. No matter how rigorously you wash your hands or how careful you are with your PPE, there is the ever-present risk that you could be in your patient’s place next week. My daughter is one of the doctors who had been working on the front line in Covid-19 wards, making that risk very personal to me.
Yet everyone I met and supported on the wards was driven by a remarkable sense of duty, purpose and togetherness. They knew the risks, but were all determined to get on with it and save lives. Much of my job in occupational health was providing them with reassurance and practical advice to help manage that risk and protect their health.
This experience has been humbling and inspiring, but it has also left me with a strong sense that we need to do more. The trust I worked in recognised the importance of providing ongoing support for their staff. I believe we should now put the right systems in place to guarantee that all doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals receive the best occupational care, wherever they work.
Health support in the workplace for NHS staff – simply put, caring for the carers – is something of a patchwork when you look at the UK as a whole. Currently, NHS trusts develop their own expertise and occupational health processes independently. Some good, some not so good.
The pandemic demonstrated the need for comprehensive, consistent and high-quality occupational health support for NHS workers, in every healthcare setting. Without the right levels of support in place to help staff during major peaks in demand, it can have serious consequences for their wellbeing, their ability to work and ultimately for patient care.
As the economy reopens, the pressure on our nurses, doctors and other health workers is likely to continue. The reopening of pubs will likely lead to busy evenings in A&E. There’s a significant catch up required in diagnosis and care for patients in areas such as cancer and eye surgery. And the shadow of a potential second wave or local outbreak will continue to impact NHS teams across the country.
The appointment of a national co-ordinator for occupational health in the NHS would help us integrate the lessons from this crisis and help our skilled NHS leaders ensure all NHS staff have the right support, with best practice adopted consistently across the country.
With the scale of the crisis faced by NHS staff, we shouldn’t be reliant on their heroism alone to see us through. We should give them the support they need, to keep caring so brilliantly for us. As the applause dies down, that will be one of the best ways to show our gratitude.
Dr Paul Williams is division president at health and employment services firm, Maximus UK.