Supporting staff mental health at the UK’s biggest employer – The NHS

Danny Mortimer
Danny Mortimer

Chief executive of NHS Employers

The NHS employs 1.3 million people in England. Our workforce takes on massive responsibilities caring for our communities, often at the most traumatic parts of their lives.

They work in large organisations and complex teams, and, in common with other public services, investment in their work has not kept pace with either demand or the technological innovation being deployed elsewhere in the economy.

Following sustained underinvestment over the last 12 years, there are significant gaps in our workforce numbers, particularly in nursing – our largest staff group.

A substantial investment in the NHS was announced last summer, including pay increases for our non-medical workforce, but it will take some years for the situation to improve.

Of course, the NHS workforce is also vulnerable to the financial and family pressures we see in wider society. Indeed, the biggest fear is that because their work is focused on caring for others that our people are expected – or expect themselves – to display unreasonable levels of resilience and fortitude.

Staff must feel able, rather than obligated, to stay in work if they are experiencing mental ill health

At a time when recruiting and retaining staff is absolutely critical, it’s imperative that NHS organisations make sure our staff are given all the support they need. Staff must feel able, rather than obligated, to stay in work if they are experiencing mental ill health.

They must also feel able to discuss their mental wellbeing openly and have confidence it will be prioritised and properly supported by employers. Furthermore, line managers should be supported to address mental wellbeing in the workplace and support their staff.

Two nurses discuss treatment of a patient.

If this sounds bleak – and let’s make no bones about the scale of the challenges we face in protecting and preserving staff mental wellbeing in the NHS – there is reassurance in the great work going on across the NHS to improve support for mental wellbeing.

For example, South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation trust, which employs 4,000 clinical and operational staff, has a ‘staying well’ service – a dedicated, confidential support service for its staff, including access to a full-time mental health practitioner.

The trust’s analysis found staff accessing support were absent from work for an average of 15 fewer days than those not accessing support. The trust is continuing to work with specialist counselling providers and offers support for post-traumatic stress disorder.

We want to make sure the NHS is the best place to work

Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust has also done some excellent work in this area, with its health, employee, learning and psychotherapy (HELP) service. It includes options such as group debriefs following traumatic events, stress management workshops and specialist eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) trauma therapy.

The service supports as many as 500 members of staff annually with individual psychotherapy and counselling, and 98 per cent of staff reported that the sessions had either helped them to say in work or even come back sooner following sick leave.

We want to make sure the NHS is the best place to work, as per the ambitions of the NHS People Plan. We therefore need to take action now, across the whole of the health service. Otherwise, our ability to close workforce supply gaps may be impeded.

To support this, NHS Employers provides resources such as Head First​Head First Web page Head First is a free mental wellbeing resource designed for people working in the ambulance service. It has information on positive mental health, resilience and recovery. Free By: NHS Employers View resource, a free mental wellness resource, designed specifically for the ambulance service to support resilience, wellness, and recovery. The Sickness Absence toolkit​Everything you need to know about sickness absence: mental health Web page A really quick primer for NHS line managers to give you confidence in managing sickness absence. This page focuses on staff who have been absent due to mental health issues.Free By: NHS Employers View resource also contains advice for line managers to help support staff with absence, including time off for mental health reasons.

Two hospital porters move a bed to another ward.

Deborah Lee, chief executive of Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, recently took part in a podcast with NHS Employers​Deborah Lee on mental health: leading the way and tackling stigma Podcast episode Leadership has a key role to play in challenging stigma. In this podcast, Deborah Lee, CEO of Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, discusses her decision to open up to staff about her own mental health and the effect it had on workplace culture.Free By: NHS Employers View resource, on tackling stigma around mental health and the importance of leadership. In it, she talks about her decision to share her own experiences with her staff, and encourages leaders to develop cultures that prioritise the mental wellbeing of staff. Sean Duggan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation’s Mental Health Network, narrates the podcast, offering insights on supporting staff with mental health issues in the workplace.

Meanwhile, the How are you feeling, NHS?​How are you feeling today, NHS? Website It's easier to recognise someone's physical than emotional wellbeing. This easy-to-use tool has been developed with NHS staff to help them talk openly about emotional health, look at its impact and plan actions to enable more good days than bad.Free By: NHS Employers View resource toolkit is designed for staff across the NHS, to help bridge gaps in understanding and enable staff to talk openly and regularly about emotional health.

If line managers feel awkward or ill-equipped to address mental wellbeing among staff, the toolkit can help to start the conversation and provide signposts to further support.

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