The recent figures showing there is a 40% increase in stress and depression in Scottish paramedics are an absolute disgrace. No one should go to work to be made unwell. Health professionals shouldn’t become the patient because of their work.

Stress and depression aren’t like a bout of flu – people don’t get over it easily, in fact some people don’t ever get over it. Some will have a very long period off work. Some won’t ever be able to return to work. Some will lose their homes, marriages and relationships.

The reasons why stress and depression amongst health professionals are increasing so dramatically are complex.

Years ago when I was a nurse in a hospital, it was a frequent occurrence for nurses to hurt their backs lifting patients. Many ended up having to have a lot of time off sick. Some lost their jobs because they couldn’t return to roles that required patient lifting.

I remember when I was a student nurse, myself and another student, who was equally small, had to lift a patient who weighed probably 25 stone.

We asked for help – the porters were our usual port of call for physical help in those days. The porters took one look at this patient and said “No way, she’s too heavy!” But what could we do – she needed lifting – we did what we could and surprise, surprise – we hurt our backs! I had to go to the doctor about it and get some medication. It could have been a life long problem. It could have been career limiting.

These days health professionals do very little lifting. The NHS has recognised the cost of back injuries, both in terms of injuring its staff and financial compensation. There was a multi level approach to tackling this problem. There are now lots of different types of equipment that staff use and this with the organisational wide strategy has resulted in a significant reduction of injury.

This problem of paramedic burn-out shows the complexity of the issue of mental health and wellbeing in both our workplaces and society. There are a number of issues and needs:  

·       People need quick therapeutic support when they become unwell. But fixing them up and sending them back into the same working environment that created the problem won’t change the fundamental problem.

·       Paramedics need to learn how to look after themselves and each other – these aren’t just skills that people learn in a one-off training session but need to be engaged with on an ongoing basis. Supervision, coaching and mentoring groups can help with this.

·       They probably need help with finances – an important area that creates much stress and distress.

·       They need help with their specific roles – managing sleep and shift work for example and dealing with trauma and keeping emotionally well.

·       They need managers who understand the importance of staff wellbeing, can identify early signs problems and are comfortable in talking about them.

·       Managers need to be able to role model wellbeing. This requires self-awareness and skills in looking after one’s own physical and mental health. It also requires leadership and advocating practices that support staff wellbeing. This needs to be engaged with on an ongoing basis.

·       The system also needs tackling – more investment, better resources, targets, lack of control and toxic culture. These are all things that cause good people who want to help us in our hour of need to burn out.

The issues of back injuries I spoke about earlier were tackled through a national approach, filtered down to each and every health organisation and workplace. It’s the only way to do it. Otherwise its just plugging one hole whilst standing by whilst 100 other holes haemorrhage!

Human Resources Directors need to be tackling this – not walking away from it. Picking up the pieces will only have a limited effect at one level – this requires a multi-level approach with prevention at its core.


Adelle Shaw-Flach is Director of The Sweet Potato Consultancy. She works with businesses to tackle the cycle of stress, burn-out, mental health, absenteeism and high turnover.

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