Your BMA: demands on staff

The pressure on doctors to be ever-present at work despite how they are feeling is a risk to their well-being, says BMA representative body acting chair Latifa Patel

Location: UK
Last reviewed: 20 August 2021
latifa patel

The recent #TipsForNewDocs on social media has got me reflecting on how we have all been hard-wired to worry about attendance – and to believe, wholeheartedly, that 100 per cent attendance is important.

It has led me to wonder what the effects of that might be for our careers, our well-being and ultimately our NHS.

For me, it goes all the way back to primary school.

I think back to year three where we had reports which included the amount of authorised and unauthorised attendance we had during the year.

For many it was a matter of pride or came with a feeling of shame. In my career as a paediatric respiratory trainee, one thing I see is those children for whom 100 per cent attendance is not possible.

We see children with acute and chronic respiratory disease which makes it an impossible achievement and for those children and their families it is difficult.

They can’t have that certificate at the end of the year – they can’t achieve that 100 per cent attendance and whatever reward it may sometimes come with. That’s
not right.

I think it’s a feeling we are programmed to keep with us.

I remember as a medical student and then a newly qualified doctor still feeling like being ever-present was so important. And it sticks with many of us throughout our working lives too. In our career – perhaps more than most others – there’s a feeling that we have to be there.

The patients need us, our colleagues need us, 5.45 million patients on the waiting list for treatment in England alone, we are reminded constantly. The truth, perhaps, is that while we often talk about demand on the NHS it would be more reasonable to talk about demand on the staff working in the NHS.

The demand on us. For many of us working in the NHS is being part of a team. We spend so much time with our colleagues and we share moments of great emotion – of joy and of sadness.

We often feel we need to keep up that 100 per cent attendance because our teams need us. One memory sticks out to me. I was working as a house officer on an adult respiratory ward.

A healthcare assistant found out that I hadn’t had a lunch break and it was now approaching 5pm. When she approached me with tea and toast I told her I simply didn’t have time.

Her response is something I’ll remember forever, I think.

She said: ‘If you keel over now, this service will just have to carry on without you. It won’t stop.’

Right there I realised two things – she was right. If someone in the NHS ever offers you a break and some tea and toast you take it.

There is a very serious point here. We face so many pressures in our working lives – and this idea of 100 per cent attendance is a strong element of those. It is in-built and it becomes ever more powerful as we throw ourselves into our work.

But it can be dangerous, too. Our jobs are difficult and have become increasingly so during the course of this pandemic. We have to look after ourselves and each other.

I would like you to know that if you are finding it difficult – if any of these feelings resonate with you – the BMA has many provisions and services which could help.

As your trade union and professional body we recognise just how important it is we invest in the well-being of our members and the wider profession.

All doctors and medical students, members and non-members and their partners and dependants have access to our confidential services because we know how important this is.

We provide 24/7 access to free counselling and peer support services. There is always someone to talk to – 0330 123 1245.

In recent months we have run surveys featuring unprecedented numbers of contributions from doctors to help us understand what people are experiencing and how they need to be supported or represented by us.

But I would also like to ask you if there is more we can do. Is there anything we could be doing to help you? If there is anything – no matter how small or insignificant it may seem – please get in touch.

I want to know, I want to understand and I want to help.

You can contact me via DM on Twitter, my DMs are always open or via email