Improving NHS staff wellbeing

At a challenging time for the sector, Debra Gers, employment lawyer at Blake Morgan, and Jordan Cummins, health director at the CBI discuss what can be done to improve the wellbeing of staff working in health and social care

There’s no question that the last few years have led to unprecedented pressure on the health and social care sector, with the Covid-19 pandemic and its residual effects, and now the cost-of-living crisis creating fresh challenges.
    
One area which has been adversely affected is the physical and mental wellbeing of those working in the NHS and wider health and social care organisations. The backlog of appointments, on-going demand for services, and staff shortages has added extra pressure to an already squeezed workforce, which has had little to no respite following an intense few years.
    
Mental Health
Many are suffering from unprecedented levels of poor mental health, including stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD, and organisations are experiencing higher volumes of sickness absence. With the cost-of-living crisis deepening, financial concerns are also rising. Improving the wellbeing of those working within the sector has never been more important.
    
The health and social care sector must put this at the centre of its value proposition and work to improve job design and satisfaction to protect the workforce from ongoing challenges.
    
The NHS has a strategy for improving the wellbeing of its staff, and is investing in initiatives including supporting the new Integrated Care Systems to develop and pilot locally-owned health and wellbeing offers for their workforce. Other organisations and businesses across the sector need to follow suit and make proactive investment in the wellbeing of workers.

How can staff wellbeing be improved in practice?
Long working hours and high workload has been a challenge in the sector for many years, leading to burnout for staff. Reducing these this is an obvious first step.
    
While a longer-term approach is needed to combat the strain on resources, there are structural changes which can be implemented now to ease pressures on individual staff members. These include creating better shift patterns to give employees greater flexibility, ensuring better training,
and putting in place initiatives such as shared workloads to ensure those on the frontline do not feel unnecessary burdens.
    
Organisations should also prioritise mid-level management, putting more people in these positions and giving them the training needed to ease the pressure on more junior workers.
    
For employees who are experiencing poor mental health, creating a more open culture where staff feel able to talk about their concerns is crucial, and support is key.

People Plan
The NHS’s People Plan, the workforce strategy for delivering its Long Term Plan, sets out the ambition for every staff member to have regular conversations focused on health and wellbeing with their line manager, including discussion of flexible working requirements and matters related to equality, diversity and inclusion. The NHS has also set up 40 staff mental health and wellbeing confidential hubs to provide colleagues with free-of-charge rapid access to assessment and local evidence-based mental health services and support, such as talking therapy and counselling.
    
Across wider organisations, mid-level management should be trained to better spot the signs of poor mental health and be able to proactively address these, and guidance should be given to individual staff members on how and where to ask for help. Employers may wish to refer to the measures set out in guidance from the Covid Trauma Response Working Group which, while designed to support early-stage responses to the pandemic, also apply to the longer-term effects of the crisis, and new challenges too.
    
Working from home
Where possible, health and social care organisations should also implement home-based and remote working to ensure a better work-life balance, although it must be noted that for some, remote working can have an adverse impact on their mental wellbeing because of increased feelings of loneliness.
    
Smaller measures should also be put in place to improve the day-to-day lives of employees. Research from the Nuffield Trust has coined this ‘hygiene factors’ and includes ensuring employees have access to amenities such as rest areas and car parking, as well as the correct equipment. These can help to mitigate problems in the short-term, easing overall pressure on the workforce.

Inclusive environment
It is also important that leaders foster an inclusive, compassionate and cooperate environment which creates a sense of belonging among employees, making them feel valued and giving them a sense they have a stake in their work. This is particularly effective in the health and social care sector, where workers are motivated by a sense of public service.
    
With the cost-of-living crisis deepening, financial concerns are increasing for much of the workforce, particularly those on lower wages. The sector must consider how it can adapt for this challenging period, and introduce measures which support employees. These could include subsidised meals at work, tax-free vouchers for rising bills, or even loans for public transport.
    
Improving – and maintaining – staff wellbeing is a priority, but there is no magic fix. The onus should be on continued investment into these initiatives over a longer period.

Debra Gers and Jordan Cummins will be discussing the challenge of workplace wellbeing within the health and social care sector as part of the upcoming Future Health Conference which is being run by Blake Morgan and taking place in November.https://www.blakemorgan.co.uk/future-health-conference/

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