Supporting staff mental health at the UK’s biggest employer – The NHS
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.
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, a free mental wellness resource, designed specifically for the ambulance service to support resilience, wellness, and recovery. The also contains advice for line managers to help support staff with absence, including time off for mental health reasons.
Deborah Lee, chief executive of Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, recently took part in, 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, thetoolkit 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.