“I hope the joy returns”—the experiences of British Geriatrics Society members working through winter 2020/21

A new survey from the British Geriatrics Society finds that its members are still reporting high levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety from the pandemic, say Claire Copeland and Sally Greenbrook

In March 2021, the British Geriatrics Society (BGS) published Through the Visor, a report from a survey of our members conducted in autumn 2020. Through the Visor detailed the high levels of stress and anxiety experienced by BGS members in the first wave of the pandemic, as well as some of the practical challenges faced by healthcare professionals, such as access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and covid-19 testing. 

However, we acknowledged that this report was a snapshot in time and, with the survey conducted in autumn 2020 and the report published in early spring 2021, many, if not most, of our members had faced more challenging circumstances during the intervening winter months. With this in mind, we conducted a follow-up survey in April and May 2021 to gauge our members’ experiences of working through winter 2020/21. We had 174 BGS members respond from across the multidisciplinary team professions and across the UK—fewer than the 425 who responded to our first survey. 

We were pleased that the practical challenges of managing the pandemic appeared to have lessened, with respondents generally reporting better access to both PPE and covid testing through the winter months. Our members also told us that, for the most part, the rollout of the covid-19 vaccination programme was smooth and efficient. However, the impact of the pandemic on the mental and emotional health of our members is still significant, with members reporting high levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety. Members also reported that in addition to affecting their own mental health, the pandemic had had a substantial impact on their families’ wellbeing. 

I have always loved my job [but] in the last few months I have thought frequently about giving up medicine . . .  I hope the joy returns.” Consultant, Scotland

Dear God, don’t let it happen again. I don’t know if I can do that all again.” Speciality doctor, England

A worrying number of respondents told us that they were considering making a change to their working lives, including taking early retirement, moving to less than full time working, or moving to non-clinical roles. A shortage of staff within the health and social care workforce has been a problem for some years, and we have known for a long time that we are not training enough specialists in older people’s care. We can ill afford for colleagues to leave the profession now, worsening the crisis. It is essential that the mental health of the workforce is taken seriously and that healthcare professionals are supported to come to terms with what they have faced over the past year, so that they can return refreshed to doing what they are best at—providing exemplary care for our ageing population. 

In order to achieve this, a balance will need to be struck between the need to clear the backlog of patients waiting for treatment after the pandemic and the need for the workforce to be allowed to recover. We need NHS organisations and governments across the UK to commit to putting older people and the healthcare professionals who care for them at the centre of covid recovery plans. It is essential that healthcare professionals are able to stop working extended hours and take planned annual leave and study leave.

While many people enjoy a healthy old age, the demand for health and social care services for those over 65 continues to grow. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of ensuring we have the right workforce, suitably equipped with the skills and knowledge to support the older population’s health needs. It is essential that steps are taken now to recruit and train more specialists in older people’s healthcare across the multidisciplinary team and to ensure that the entire healthcare workforce, including specialists in other disciplines, has a good understanding of frailty, multimorbidity, and cognitive impairment. 

Claire Copeland, consultant geriatrician and associate medical director integration, Forth Valley Royal Hospital, vice president for workforce, British Geriatrics Society. Twitter @Sparklystar55

Competing interests: CC is a trustee for Erskine Care Home on the clinical governance committee.

Sally Greenbrook, policy manager, British Geriatrics Society. Twitter @SallyGreenbrook

Competing interests: none declared.