Overstretched NHS and social care workforce major threat to nation’s health, as millions suffer poor care as a result

  • New figures reveal more than one in four Brits say they or a family member have received poor NHS care in the last five years due to problems with staffing
  • Citizen’s assembly calls out workforce issues as the biggest health and care threat, while a poll shows 69% of the public think more staff needed to emerge safely from Covid
  • Engage Britain analysis shows over 400 NHS workers in England leaving every week due to work-life balance pressures
  • Public believes care workers and nurses are among the country’s most undervalued professions 

New analysis from charity Engage Britain today reveals more than one in four adults (28%) believe themselves or a family member have had poor NHS care due to workforce problems, such as workers being under too much pressure, a lack of staff or poorly trained staff.

The charity surveyed 3000 adults with Britain Thinks, showing a massive 69% of Brits think that to safely emerge from the pandemic we need to prioritise more health and care staff. This reinforces the conclusions of Engage Britain’s recent citizen’s assembly (The People’s Panel) which highlighted workforce as the biggest concern when it comes to health and care. 

The ‘People’s Panel’ is one part of a ground-breaking initiative bringing everyday people together to fix problems with the NHS and social care. The citizen’s assembly, which brought together people from across Britain with different views and backgrounds, found workforce issues are the most pressing problem facing the country. But also underlined the need to improve the way patients are treated, along with more support for mental health issues and healthcare for prevention rather than cure.

Worryingly, Engage Britain’s analysis of NHS Digital figures shows the pressures of working in the health system taking its toll, with the latest quarterly figures showing at least 400 staff a week in England leaving due to problems with work-life balance. And recent Skills for Care estimates show a high rate of turnover in the English social care workforce, with over a third (34%) of care workers leaving their roles in 2020/21.

As health and care staff battle through another winter of Covid, grateful Brits are sympathetic to the difficulties they face, with the survey identifying care workers and nurses as some of our most undervalued professions compared to other jobs from retail and hospitality workers through to teachers and civil servants.

Case study: Jenny Bevan, 74, from Bath sat on Engage Britain’s People’s Panel. She believes staff shortages and other stresses on the NHS led to her traumatic experiences getting treatment for a hiatus hernia in 2018, leaving her fearful of returning to hospital.

She says: “Before my operation I’d been told to prepare for a two or three-night stay. But when I got to the hospital they seemed surprised and clearly didn’t have a bed for me.

“The surgery went well, but afterwards I was left in the recovery room for hours. There appeared to be only one nurse and as the day wore on, the number of patients grew and grew. I was anxious because my granddaughter had all my personal belongings and didn’t know where I was. But the nurse wouldn’t let her in to see me. She seemed stressed and clearly needed more help. When I had to go to the toilet, I was not allowed to get out of bed so I had to use a bedpan which spilled over and it was just awful.

“I was eventually transferred to a ward used for patients with dementia. I was in considerable pain but was told I’d have to wait for the doctor, as the nurse wasn’t qualified to give strong painkillers. The next morning I wasn’t allowed to go to the bathroom and had to wash using a bowl by my bed. I was even inspected to make sure I’d cleaned myself properly. The whole experience left me traumatised and I have a genuine fear of ever going back.”

Engage Britain Director, Julian McCrae, said: “Frontline health and care workers are running on empty as they support us through the pandemic – and the British public wants to see them fairly paid and treated with dignity. At the same time millions of people who need help from the NHS worry their care is suffering because of our hugely strained workforce.

“NHS workers across the country have spoken to us about feeling overstretched, undervalued and struggling to get support in a chaotic system. Many also know being pulled so thinly means patients who need their support are worse off as a result – a lose, lose situation for everyone. 

“We can’t allow staff to burn out while putting patients at risk of mistakes or spiralling downwards as they wait months for treatment. The government must act quickly to expand its promise of reform, based on listening to the people who use or work in the system every day. Only answers rooted in real experiences can deliver health and care that works for us all.”

In the next phase of Engage Britain’s project a team made up of the public, frontline staff and decision makers will work together to find new, practical solutions to workforce issues, which will help make health and care services work for everyone. For more information on what matters to people in Britain about health and social care go to engagebritain.org

Notes to editors

Case studies and spokespeople available on request.

Media contact

Freya Barnes, Head of Media 0203 953 6329 / media@engagebritain.org 


  • Engage Britain conducted the People’s Panel Sept-Nov 2021. The Panel was comprised of 100 randomly selected participants representative of the British public, who met over four weekends to reflect the views of people in England, Scotland and Wales. Their role was to listen, to discuss and to prioritise what health and social care issues matter most to people in Britain.
  • Number of weekly leavers for work life balance reasons based on an average of the last four quarterly figures from NHS Digital’s workforce data for September 2021 (January release). 20,834 NHS staff working in English Hospital and Community Health Services (excluding people working in primary care) had “voluntary resignation – work life balance” logged as their reason for leaving between September 2020 and September 2021.
  • Survey commissioned by Engage Britain and conducted by Britain Thinks to investigate people’s health and care priorities and assess the resonance of the final conclusions by the People’s Panel. It was a nationally representative survey of 3027 adults. Online fieldwork was undertaken 26-31 January 2022. Data weighted to be representative of the UK population by age, gender, region, socioeconomic grade, and ethnicity. 
  • The survey asked, ‘In the last five years, have you or someone else in your immediate family experienced the following: Receiving poor care due to problems with the NHS workforce (e.g. workers under too much pressure, not enough staff, poorly trained staff?’ 16% people said ‘Yes – me’; , 17% people said “Yes – a family member”; 28% said “Yes – me”, “Yes – a family member” or both; 64% said no; 6% said don’t know; and 2% preferred not to answer.
  • The survey asked, ‘Which of the following do you think are needed to support the NHS to get staff and patients safely through the pandemic?’ and respondents were allowed to select as many options as they agreed with. 71% of people think more funding to the NHS”;, 69% of people think more health and care staff”; 55% of people think more funding to social care”; 38% of people think less overuse of the A&E and GP appointments”; 28% of people think more use of support from the private sector”; 25% of people think more restrictions to limit the spread of the virus”; 21% of people think more use of support from the voluntary sector”; and 7% said “something else”. 
  • Survey respondents were split into two representative groups for some questions. One group of 1,519 respondents were asked, “As a society, how much do you think we value each of the following: Doctors, nurses, care workers, teachers, civil servants, lawyers, bankers, retail workers, hospitality workers, and construction workers?”’ Respondents chose between “too much”, “enough/about right”, “not enough” and “don’t know”. 78% of people think care workers are not valued enough, 70% of people think nurses are not valued enough, 48% of people think retail workers are not valued enough, 48% of people think teachers are not valued enough, 45% of people think hospitality workers are not valued enough, 42% of people think doctors are not valued enough, 26% of people think construction workers are not valued enough, 15% of people think civil servants are not valued enough, 4% of people think lawyers are not valued enough, 4% of people think bankers are not valued enough. 

About Engage Britain 

Engage Britain is fully independent charity, giving people a say on what matters most to Britain. We’re finding answers to the country’s biggest problems by grounding them in people’s everyday lives. We’re bringing together people with different views, ideas and experiences across Britain and helping them not just to debate but create the plans for change they want to see. Then we’re working with them to make those changes happen. We’re pulling people and those in power closer. And proving the public’s practical, realistic solutions can help make the country work for us all. Be part of Britain’s big decisions at engagebritain.org  

Read coverage of this story in The Observer.