Children’s hospitals urged to support overstretched staff

Psychologist Barbara Wren warns of impact of burnout on patients and parents

The impact of over-stretched health services on frontline staff, as well as patients, must not be overlooked, says Anna Gunning, chief executive of Children in Hospital Ireland (CHI).

A charity probably best known for its play service run by 400 volunteers in 13 hospitals, it advocates for the best care during the 270,000 hospital visits made by children each year.

That can only be achieved if all frontline staff and volunteers are supported, she says. It is why they invited psychologist Barbara Wren to deliver the annual CHI lecture on the topic last month.

Children’s hospital services need people “who are professional, expert, compassionate and caring but who are also working in a system that supports them”, says Gunning.


If organisations are supportive, “they will get it back in terms of commitment and lack of burnout. We’re looking at the end user – the children and the parents”.

As well as the added emotional aspect of working with children in hospitals, she says, there are other complexities.

“You enter the family system in a way you might not do with an adult who comes in. Kids are very often the strong, resilient ones and the parents are incredibly stressed out, understandably.” Hospital professionals have to respect everybody’s perspective.

“You can’t take a child in isolation with their illness; it comes with a whole load of layers.”

She believes Wren’s lecture has been valuable in opening up discussion on how preventative psychological support is not a luxury but a necessity, which needs to be addressed at an organisational as well as individual level.

Emotionally challenging

Children in Hospital Ireland play volunteer Rosemary Wilson knew the work was going to be demanding when she started four years ago. She goes into the oncology ward in Our Lady's Children's Hospital in Crumlin, every Tuesday morning for two or three hours.

It is tough emotionally, she says, “but not to the extent that I can’t deal with it because both the children and the parents are so amazing – unbelievable”.

The hardest experience is “seeing somebody who you know that the time has come and that it is not a peaceful time, and you see a parent in distress, knowing the same, and going through the last few minutes. The look on parents’ faces.

“At that stage we would not be actually involved – your list would not include that child on the day – but you would pass by and you would know when you meet a parent in the corridor. That’s the hardest.

“The one I am thinking of would have been the life and soul of the party. You wouldn’t single anyone out but you would remember a couple of incidents like that, that stick with you.”

But such moments of deep sadness don’t put her off. “Absolutely not, in fact it would make me feel I wish I could do better – make more of a difference.”

She and other volunteers meet for coffee and a chat regularly, for informal support. “If it is getting a bit heavier and there is a particular issue, we can phone head office of the CHI and they are there to lend a hand.”

Having retired some years ago from the Institute of Directors, Wilson (76), whose own three grandchildren live abroad, is “so glad” she is a hospital play volunteer. “I am hoping,” she adds, “I will last long enough to be part of the new children’s hospital”.