NHS workforce plans need total overhaul to tackle burnout crisis, MPs warn

NHS workforce planning is 'at best opaque and at worst responsible for unacceptable pressure' on staff across the health service, according to a damning report from MPs that warns 'chronic excessive workload' is driving a surge in burnout.

Parliament Square: MPs demand NHS workforce overhaul (Photo: George W Johnson/Getty Images)
Parliament Square: MPs demand NHS workforce overhaul (Photo: George W Johnson/Getty Images)

Workforce planning in the health service has been driven by limited funding 'rather than by demand and the capacity required to service that demand', the report warns.

It calls for annual, independent workforce projections to provide a clear and fair basis for long-term NHS workforce planning - and condemns the absence of any 'accurate, public projection of what health and social care require in the workforce'.

The report from the House of Commons health and social care committee highlights 'chronic excessive workload' driven by staff shortages that date back to well before the COVID-19 pandemic  - and blames resulting 'unacceptable' pressure on NHS staff for driving up levels of burnout.

GP workload

Its warnings come just weeks after GPonline reported that there are now 10% fewer GPs per patient compared with five years ago - despite government promises to increase GP numbers. Evidence presented to the committee by the Health Foundation included projections that the NHS in England faced 'a shortfall of 7,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs in 2023/24 rising to 11,500 FTE GPs by 2028/29'.

Meanwhile, NHS Practitioner Health - which offers support to doctors facing mental health or addiction problems - has reported a sharp rise in GPs seeking help over the past year, while BMA polling and data on GP appointments have all highlighted surging workload pressure.

The committee's report calls on Health Education England to publish 'objective, transparent and independently-audited annual reports on workforce projections that cover the next five, 10 and 20 years including an assessment of whether sufficient numbers are being trained'.

It calls for ongoing monitoring of the impact of COVID-19 on the NHS and social care workforce and warns that staff from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have been 'disproportionately affected' - calling on the government to set out plans to implement recommendations on tackling this disproportionate impact.

NHS workforce plans

The committee also calls on the government to publish 'regular, costed updates' on aims set out in its NHS people plan, for integrated care systems to be accountable for accessibility and take-up of staff wellbeing services, and for a review to consider how targets set for NHS organisations may drive a 'culture which deprioritises care of both staff and patients'.

Committee chair Jeremy Hunt - who as health secretary in 2016 admitted he had not adequately prioritised workforce planning - said: 'Workforce burnout across the NHS and care systems now presents an extraordinarily dangerous risk to the future functioning of both services.

'An absence of proper, detailed workforce planning has contributed to this, and was exposed by the pandemic with its many demands on staff. However, staff shortages existed long before COVID-19.

'Staff face unacceptable pressure with chronic excessive workload identified as a key driver of workforce burnout. It will simply not be possible to address the backlog caused by the pandemic unless these issues are addressed.

Doctor shortage

'Achieving a long-term solution demands a complete overhaul of workforce planning. Those plans should be guided by the need to ensure that the long-term supply of doctors, nurses and other clinicians is not constrained by short-term deficiencies in the number trained.'

BMA wellbeing lead Dr David Wrigley said: 'The fact that we have an overstretched, understaffed workforce is not new, but this report makes clear that all health and care staff desperately need government support now.

'We welcome the report’s recommendations for an overhaul of workforce planning and agree that additional wellbeing support put in place for health and care staff during this pandemic should continue to be made available post COVID-19.

'Health and care staff suffered stress and work related anxiety before the pandemic but it is now far more serious and we believe the current level of staff burnout and stress presents a worrying risk to the future functioning of the health and care system and safe patient care.'

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