One in three anaesthetists suffering with mental health problems caused by the pandemic

Published: 11/02/2021

A fifth of anaesthetists are considering leaving medicine

Leadership of specialty key to rebuilding and improving services

Retention and recruitment of the workforce crucial for patient safety

A snap survey conducted by the Royal College of Anaesthetists has shown the extent of the mental health crisis gripping NHS staff. Results showed widespread concerns, with 34% of the College’s members who responded reporting poor or very poor mental health caused by the pandemic and 18% considering leaving medicine altogether.

Since March 2020 nearly half1 of our College members have been redeployed to work in intensive care units across the NHS, including 60% of anaesthetists in training. They have led from the front during the pandemic, training NHS staff, developing innovative solutions to patient care and treatments, and organising equipment and critical care beds.

We have also seen thousands of our members working to maintain the core anaesthetic services so desperately needed from the labour ward, to trauma care, and cancer services. They have gone to incredible lengths during these extraordinary times, but this has come at a high cost to their own health and wellbeing.

The survey respondents are saying they are exhausted and burnt out with some suffering from extreme stress. The effect this may have on an already understaffed NHS should not be underestimated, with over a third (39%) saying they are planning to cut back on hours once normal services resume.

This week the College launched its Anaesthesia – Fit for the Future campaign, aimed at addressing some of the key challenges and opportunities facing the specialty over the next three years, especially around workforce retention.   

COVID recovery challenges, such as clearing the record-high backlog of elective surgery, can only be met if we retain the experience and the leadership of anaesthetists. This means working across the system to build a more compassionate and flexible culture, that places the wellbeing of the workforce at its heart.

There are positive signs.

70% of our members are telling us that working during the pandemic has increased their sense of teamworking and 35% say they feel more valued in their roles. It would be a significant missed opportunity if the government and the College did not take advantage of these positives and work to build a more robust, sustainable workforce.

Alongside retention we must also see a focus on recruitment, addressing the NHS’ workforce crisis through an investment in anaesthetic training places, packaged within a sustainable approach to the funding of medical training places in the UK.

One anaesthetist told the College: “Physical and emotional exhaustion will take time to heal. If an obsessional approach is taken in an attempt to clear the huge backlog of interventions without considering the workforce’s needs, many will leave making that task infinitely more challenging moving forward.”

Responding to these figures Professor Ravi Mahajan, President of the Royal College of Anaesthetists said:

“Over the past year anaesthetists and their NHS colleagues have brought incredible resilience and compassion to their roles, facing up to the challenge and being at the heart of tackling this terrible disease. However, as we look to the future and our recovery, we must acknowledge the dramatic effect COVID has had on our workforce.

“Many of our members are being exposed to traumatic situations daily, they are mentally and physically exhausted. With 18% of all survey respondents considering leaving medicine and 40% cutting back hours post pandemic; I have real concerns the healthcare service will not be able to function safely and effectively.

“Whilst still struggling to tackle the disease, it is sometimes hard to look to the future, however we are now presented with a unique opportunity. Learning the lessons of the pandemic including teamworking, upskilling and innovation, the government and the College can revisit how the NHS delivers services.

“The NHS cannot do more of the same, we must look to build a healthcare service that is fit for the future. If we return to normal services without addressing the fundamental concerns of the workforce, we risk losing staff and discouraging those inspired by COVID to join the NHS. The pandemic has shown us the best the healthcare system has to offer, let us use the next few months to take these messages on board, and work not only to recover, but to improve. The future for our NHS staff, our patients and our health service depends on it.”

  1. View from the frontline of anaesthesia during COVID-19, July 2020 survey results.