Physician heal thyself? the shamefulness of failing to care.

Over the last few days I’ve been speaking a lot to journalists and media in response to the initiative from Scottish Government to make funding available to enable the purchase of ‘interim beds’ in care homes. These are to allow for the speedier discharge of patients fit for discharge from a stay in hospital but unable to do so because of a lack of a social care package in their own home or because the care home of their choice has no space. In general terms I have welcomed this move because it stops people being deconditioned in hospital and continues their rehabilitation. My caution in almost every comment and statement has been that a bed is only of use if there are staff available to support and care for the person in that bed. And that’s the issue because in many places there are insufficient nursing and social care staff. One of the consistent remarks I’ve made is that our front-line staff now in a third ‘exceptional winter’ are knackered, exhausted and mentally drained. I know from conversations with national nursing, acute and emergency medicine colleagues that the sense of wearied exhaustion is one shared by so many parts of our health and care system. The problem is that unless you are in it – I don’t think there is a full conception of what that really means.

I’m saying that because I have the luxury of not being on the exhaustive frontline, I sit at the safety of a desk and distance from risk and harm. What I write here is not my experience but the words, thoughts and emotions shared with me through conversation and privately through social media.

I have never before encountered the volume of people, backroom staff and managers in care home and homecare, carers out in our community and nurses, catering and domestic staff in care homes who are as exhausted as they are now. Whilst others might have grabbed a summer of rest frontline social care delivery has been running on empty for season upon season – the reserve tank is well and truly drained. This is just the same for our often-forgotten legion of family and unpaid carers who are quite literally providing the glue to keep our communities going – they are tried beyond breathing.

One worker wrote to me this week having completed back-to-back shifts not because she was asked to but because she felt the need to be there for her residents. Indeed, she had only stopped going back in because her manager had refused to allow her to do so. She wrote to me:

‘ people really don’t understand what pressure we are under. When they hear the words a ‘tired workforce’ they think we just need a good night’s sleep – it is way beyond that! Folks are off with Covid and the flu and we are stretched to breaking. But it’s the tiredness everyone feels that is different. It isn’t just that you feel tired – it’s that sort of tired which means that when you finally do stop you still can’t get to sleep even though you want to. It’s more than just being tired – it’s a tiredness that gets into your bones and drains you. I’m reading Harry Potter to my boy at the minute and it’s just as if one of those Dementors has sucked the life energy out of me.”

I know this worker well and we’ve chatted through the dark days of Covid but in truth I’ve never felt her so drained as now in the messages she’s posted.

And I know she is by no means alone – we have a workforce in a critical state of health breakdown and distress. And as we continue to respond to a health and social care emergency that is what really concerns me. There are thousands at our frontline who are sacrificial, dedicated professional staff but who are living with a tired weariness that is unlike anything they have felt. A tiredness that is so all consuming that you cannot even feel the weight of your bones inside you.

Doubtless the majority will keep struggling and keep going, putting one foot in front of the other every day. But at what cost? The cost of burnout and mental exhaustion; of physical illness and disease. The cost of unintended error and insight missed. The cost of being so demoralised that years of study and skill are lost as they leave the sectors to go elsewhere.

And when these harms are often raised – when the mental health and wellbeing of thousands is mentioned – what is frequently offered in return are sessions on relaxation and mindfulness, a web link to practising self-care and using time; for those needing more some access to enhanced psychological and mental health support. I am not for a minute belittling these – for many they are essential – but as one colleague put it to me this week – they are often ‘tone deaf’’ They fail to appreciate the immediate and real harm that is being perpetrated every day to frontline carers and nurses and all in social care and health who are drained and exhausted. There is something truly perverse and morally irresponsible about a health and care system which is so intrinsically unhealthy and dangerous for those who work within it and physician heal thyself responses simply do not work.

I often wonder what it is we are modelling to our children and grandchildren through our health and care system? I am not thinking of the significant structural and system change we need to witness of which I spent time reflecting on last week. I am considering the extent to which in the reactive immediate delivery of health and care we have become so distant from manifesting the compassion, self-regard, self-care and mental wellbeing for our staff which should be illustrative of what a society needs to look like. This is not just about throwing more money at the problem, though appropriate regard and valuing together with more staff would help immensely, I am thinking increasingly that we need a thorough review of the way we treat our workers in social care and health – because we are not manifesting care and compassion. A workforce strategy must start from the position of how we protect, care for, nurture and regard our existing workers not how do we find more to recruit into an unhealthy system.

Monday is Blue Monday which will no doubt get much comment in the media. An original PR exercise to get people to travel more it is based on the questionable calculations of one professor who developed a formula to assess what is the most depressing day of the year. He combined a mixture of state of the weather, debt, time since Christmas, low motivational levels, failing to fulfil new year resolutions etc to come up with this date.

Whether a PR gimmick or a serious study it nevertheless has caught the attention of many as a description of the age-old truth that this is a dark and at time depressing period of the year. But it also risks perpetuating the myths of what cause distress and depression and creating an imaginary set of solutions.

For many of those working in frontline social care and health every day at the moment feels like a Blue Monday – and its not to do with the distance from Christmas or failed resolutions – but working within a set of worlds spinning out of control, with continual and constant and increasing demands being placed on people who are breaking and broken.

There is an acute urgency to attend to the healing of our workforce – and if when we do get through the next few weeks as we doubtless will – then there needs to be an equal urgency and emergency response to start the healing of the women and men who are tired beyond feeling. As a society we need to heal our carers.

Donald Macaskill