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For Primary Care| View from the ground

Mental Ill Health Among NHS Staff, Particularly Men, Warrants Urgent Action

View From the Ground, by Hassan Thwaini

Currently, challenging work conditions are resulting in poor retention of NHS staff. Many healthcare workers are facing tremendous difficulties, brought on by the pandemic and accentuated by the cost of living crisis. Grueling training and long working hours, heightened by the pandemic, have inevitably resulted in burnout,1 and the mental health toll on front-line staff is becoming increasingly apparent.2–4 Evidence suggests that around one-fifth of healthcare workers now meet the threshold for diagnosable mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety,2,4 and one doctor commits suicide every 3 weeks.5

Given that outdated societal beliefs tend to portray men as strong and emotionless beings, it is perhaps unsurprising that the prevalence of mental health issues among male NHS staff has skyrocketed over the past couple of years.3,6 Despite advances in redefining manhood, some of us are still confounded by traditional views on what it means to be a man, which undoubtedly contribute to the reluctance of men to seek help for mental ill health.6 In addition, healthcare workers, in particular men, are fearful of career-related repercussions if they disclose a mental health issue, and many feel unable to attend therapy as a result of negative attitudes towards such services in the workplace.1,7 Thus, the brave face we put on while battling our inner demons has become the norm for many men working in the NHS, especially those in patient-facing roles. More and more healthcare workers are, like myself, being pushed into seeking alternative roles that take less of a toll on their mental health.

I loved my job as a pharmacist, but the detrimental effects of the pandemic on my colleagues sucked the joy out of my career. Team members who were once a beacon of happiness turned into shadows of their former selves, and others with whom I was personal friends seemed lost. Despite battling my own mental health issues, I was given the responsibility of caring for patients spanning multiple wards in the pandemic—a job made for multiple pharmacists, not just one. I witnessed junior doctors looking after too many patients, nurses breaking down in hallways, porters frustrated at the lack of available beds, overrun discharge lounges and, worst of all, patients lying in beds or on mattresses in corridors because there was no room. Lunchtimes were spent complaining to our peers about the situation, and those longed-for 5 p.m. finishes were a distant memory. But still we worked, driven by a love of helping patients that, despite making up just 1% of our working day, overcame the 99% that made us miserable. 

I was lucky to have the mental health support I needed to maintain the brave face necessary to help my patients feel more at ease. However, having lost too many colleagues to mental ill health over the past couple of years, the same, unfortunately, could not be said for all. It’s high time that we ensure that conversations around men’s health and well-being happen all year round, rather than limiting our advocacy to just 1 month a year. Recognising the extent of the detrimental effects that the pandemic and current crises have had on healthcare workers is crucial, not only for their well-being, but also for the longevity of the NHS. Even small steps towards improving the complex cluster of factors currently impacting the workforce could result in a giant leap in the motivation and retention of front-line staff. With one-fifth of doctors lacking access to the right services, there’s never been greater urgency for our focus to shift to improving the well-being of healthcare workers.8