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Long hours driving record numbers of NHS staff to quit

The Guardian logo The Guardian 17/02/2019 Denis Campbell Health Policy Editor
a man talking on a cell phone: Many NHS staff report routinely working beyond their normal hours just to get all their tasks done. © Getty Images Many NHS staff report routinely working beyond their normal hours just to get all their tasks done.

Record numbers of burned-out NHS staff are quitting because they are fed up with spending too much time at work and not enough with their families, new research reveals.

The number of personnel leaving the NHS because of a poor work-life balance has almost trebled in the past seven years, analysis by the Health Foundation thinktank shows. Between June 2010 and June 2011, 3,689 employees cited that as the reason they had decided to stop working for the NHS in England. But that figure was 10,257 for the 12 months to June 2018 – a 178% increase.

Many of those who left were nurses, where the numbers quitting over work-life balance almost tripled, from 1,069 to 2,910 over those seven years. The figures are slightly lower for doctors: 270 medics quit over work-life balance in 2017-18, a 169% increase on the 101 who did so in 2010-11.

Health unions have been warning for years that NHS personnel are cracking under heavy workloads, rising demand for care and widespread understaffing. Many staff report routinely working beyond their normal hours to complete all their tasks.

Overworked doctor sitting in his office © Gety Overworked doctor sitting in his office

Becks Fisher, a GP and policy fellow at the Health Foundation, said an NHS-wide lack of family doctors was making normal life impossible. “The sheer number of decisions you make in a day can feel frighteningly large, and we’ve lost any concept of ‘routine hours’. You’re just there until all the work is done. Not infrequently that’s late at night, and there’s an inevitable impact on personal life. On a good day it’s incredibly satisfying, but on a bad one I empathise with colleagues who decide that it’s simply too much.”

The findings are based on analysis of data collected by NHS Digital, the health service’s statistical arm. They are bad news for a service already struggling to fill almost 103,000 vacancies – nearly one in 11 jobs. They include 40,877 unfilled nursing posts and a shortage of 9,337 doctors.

The Mental Health Foundation has identified Britain’s long hours culture as a key driver of the ongoing rise in mental ill-health.

“The cumulative effect of increased working hours is having an important effect on the lifestyle of a huge number of people, which is likely to prove damaging to their mental wellbeing,” it says.

An estimated 10.4 million working days a year are lost to work-related stress.

The NHS long-term plan, published last month, highlighted that it would have to offer more staff flexible working to tackle its workforce crisis.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Theresa May gives a speech at 'Institute in the Park' at Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust on January 7, 2019 in Liverpool, England.  The Prime Minister visits Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool to launch a green paper setting out how the government will spend the extra £20.5billion pledged to the NHS. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has indicated that the focus of the NHS over the next decade will be a shift to helping people stay healthy rather than just treating people when they are ill. (Photo by Charlotte Graham - WPA Pool/Getty Images) © Getty LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: Theresa May gives a speech at 'Institute in the Park' at Alder Hey Children's NHS Foundation Trust on January 7, 2019 in Liverpool, England. The Prime Minister visits Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool to launch a green paper setting out how the government will spend the extra £20.5billion pledged to the NHS. The Health Secretary Matt Hancock has indicated that the focus of the NHS over the next decade will be a shift to helping people stay healthy rather than just treating people when they are ill. (Photo by Charlotte Graham - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

It said: “Inflexible and unpredictable working patterns make it harder for people to balance their work and personal life obligations. To make the NHS a consistently great place to work, we will seek to shape a modern employment culture for the NHS [including] promoting flexibility, wellbeing and career development.”

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, one of the NHS’s largest trusts, has introduced an array of flexible working schemes in a bid to recruit and retain staff. That includes career breaks, home working, job sharing and contracts where personnel work during term times only.

Anita Charlesworth, the Health Foundation’s director of research and economics, said: “Retention rates have worsened in recent years, and almost three times as many people are citing work-life balance as a reason for leaving the NHS at the beginning of 2018/19 than in 2011/12.

“Funding constraints and growing staff shortages have continued to pile more pressure on those working in the health service, squeezing as much as possible out of a workforce that is clearly feeling the strain.”

Health Education England and NHS England plan to publish a workforce strategy later this year. Dido Harding, chair of NHS Improvement, said last October: “The single biggest problem in the NHS at the moment is that we don’t have enough people wanting to work in it.”

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