Mary Dejevsky

The concerning sickness of NHS staff

An awareness campaign that could backfire

  • From Spectator Life
(Frontline 19)

If you have been to the cinema recently and arrived in time for the adverts, you may already know what I am talking about. Somewhere between promotions for mega-burgers in glorious technicolour and exotic holiday destinations, you are plunged into what seems an endless, but is actually only a two-minute, horror flick, entitled ‘Sicker than the patients’. 

The fitness of at least half  the nursing and support staff I encountered left a lot to be desired

It is two minutes of unrelieved gloom and despair, book-ended by a family rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ around a sick patient (Daddy), who – lucky guy – appears to have a room to himself, not just a curtained bay where the sounds and smells penetrate from all around. Enabling a family to celebrate with (I think the current term is) ‘a loved one’ is presented as a rare glimmer of light in a life that is otherwise all drudgery and stress. 

Every NHS nurse, doctor, ancillary worker you see looks as though their scrubs could do with a good launder. Nor is there a lot of nursing or doctoring going on. Aside from the birthday party, spied from the wings, you only ever see staff raising their arms in despair, retching (a leitmotif), and actually being sick on the floor, collapsing in the supermarket (or pharmacy, I can’t quite tell which), thrusting bloodied hands into the sink, and being assaulted by someone who may be an angry visitor.  

And yet… when news comes through of a bad road accident, the hint is that our damaged heroes are pulling themselves together and gearing up again to do good. Well, maybe. In place of credits, rolls this message, to a soundtrack of loud sobbing: ‘With over half of NHS workers suffering from poor mental health and with one in four NHS staff having considered suicide, our new campaign underlines how, in many cases, NHS staff are sicker than the patients they are treating.’ You are then invited to ‘donate now so we can provide the therapy they urgently need’, along with a QR code. 

It is perhaps worth clarifying at this point that the advert, or rather appeal, is not for the actual NHS. It is for a charity, called Frontline 19, that provides mental health advice and therapy for NHS staff. To which your response might reasonably be: if NHS conditions are so bad as to bring them to this state, it should surely be up to the NHS itself to provide this sort of treatment. But we all know the answer to that: Our NHS is cash-strapped, especially in the mental health department.

This was the often misunderstood purpose of Captain Tom’s garden laps. He was raising funds not for the actual NHS, but for associated charities; to provide free what otherwise would have to be paid for. Frontline 19 is one such charity. And I have no doubt it is an estimable organisation and provides a needed service – although, as its website states, it, too, has a waiting list and is currently prioritising those with ‘patient-facing roles’. But I regret to say that the messages I take from this 180-second litany of distress are probably not the ones Frontline 19 wants to convey. 

The first is that, yes, conditions for staff in the NHS may be difficult and in some places dire, but this applies to a lot of jobs. A particular source of stress are the 12 hour shifts, common in NHS hospitals, which should be abolished – most of all in the interests of the patients who face a fagged out staff-member at hour 11. But a majority of staff apparently like them. Why? because they shorten the working week, cut costs of childcare and/or commuting, free time for second jobs etc. So, point one: revert to eight-hour maximum shifts. 

The second is that if ‘over half’ of NHS staff are suffering from mental health problems, maybe at least part of the problem is not the conditions, but the staff. Is the NHS perhaps recruiting the wrong people? With degrees now required for nurses as well as doctors, maybe what the NHS really needs is fewer A* grades and more of that quality called ‘resilience’. The NHS may have difficulties recruiting nurses, but there are many times more school-leavers applying to study medicine than there are training places. Maybe they are selecting the wrong ones? 

As for ‘sicker than the patients’, my observation from some short stays in hospital last year was that in physical terms that could well be true. The fitness of at least half  the nursing and support staff I encountered left a lot to be desired; weight being the most conspicuous problem.

The third message I would take away from Frontline 19’s advert is that if you value your health at all, you should avoid the NHS if you possibly can and pay for private treatment. Which is what indeed many doctors themselves do when it comes to accessing treatment for their family, as well as many in the upper echelons of the public sector, whose terms include cut-price insurance subsidised by their employer (i.e. you and me). 

I have no doubt that there are NHS staff who need mental health treatment. I hope that they can get it in a timely fashion, and if Frontline 19 offers a path to that end, that is a positive. The early social media responses to its advert were fawning gratitude to ‘Our NHS’ – which suggests a sympathetic reception from a certain algorithmic group. For the wider audience, however, I suspect that the depiction of the NHS as a cesspit of squalor and stress, largely staffed by people on the edge of a nervous breakdown, could be counter-productive, with the actual headline viewers will supply as they pick at their huge boxes of popcorn will be ‘sicker than the patients – stay away’.


Comments will appear under your real name unless you enter a display name in your account area. Further information can be found in our terms of use.