Leading from the front supporting staff facing burnout

22nd January 2021 about a 4 minute read

There’s a lot of talk about burnout among health and care staff at the moment. It was an issue before the pandemic struck, but COVID-19 has really bought matters to a head.

This week the GMB union published the results of a survey which found three quarters of ambulance staff who responded said they felt they were at breaking point.

Meanwhile the Health Select Committee are looking at burnout among NHS staff. One area they have focused on is the importance of leadership when it comes to supporting frontline staff.

I have a personal interest in the subject through the work I do as a Professor of Practice at The University of Exeter Business School around developing leaders.

I joined the health service not long after I left the military and I’m conscious of parallels between the two services.

Serve to lead

A key leadership theme in the military is ‘serve to lead’ and you have to look after yourself if you are going to be able to look after others.

It’s like the safety talk when you go on a plane: In the event of an incident put on your own oxygen mask before you help those around you with theirs.  This is sometimes easy in theory though, but harder when you are working under significant pressure.

Leaders need to find the space to think and recharge their batteries. But that’s so hard at the moment. Sometimes it means asking for help – from those above you and those around you.

No one should be afraid to do this, whatever their role is.

People talk about the importance of building mental health wellbeing into HR functions. But I would also like to hear more about compassionate leadership and the way leaders are currently communicating – and how they should communicate in future.

Leaders in health and social care are doing their best in the face of challenges that are coming thick and fast.

Sometimes it’s a case of just trying to keep the show on the road, and keep people going.

It can be difficult for leaders to say the right thing and do the right thing. A starting point is just asking staff how they are.

But it’s no good saying to someone “Are you making sure you have a break? By the way, I need you to come in on your day off…”

Be genuine

You have to be genuine. And sometimes it can be hard to get that across, especially if you’re trying to do it virtually.

The current situation is not sustainable. And the fact is that we haven’t even reached the peak for NHS demand yet – that may come in early or mid- February.

It’s clear that despite hopes for the vaccine, 2021 is going to be tough and the disruption is going to be with us for some time.

But we need to start thinking beyond COVID. The future is not going to be like the previous ‘normal’. In health and social care there will continue to be high numbers of burnt-out people trying their very best to provide care. And we must not forget unpaid carers, many of whom are burnt out, too.

Running on goodwill

The NHS and social care are running on goodwill, but once the pandemic is finally behind us how will staff find the energy to carry on? The challenge of workforce planning in the NHS and a long term settlement for social care is an ongoing issue and debate.

It takes time to train a doctor, nurse, allied health professional or a social worker. There aren’t sufficient numbers now and this could be accentuated post-pandemic. If many leave, this will put extra pressure on those who stay, so how can health and care staff be supported in these times?

I see world class leadership day-to-day, as leaders go the extra mile to support their staff and teams.  Whether or not national workforce policies and plans, plus local strategies, will lead to success long term is yet to be seen. For now, though, as you take a moment to check in with those around you, don’t forget to look after and be kind to yourselves!