£5million plan to improve the health of NHS staff

Simon Stevens today announced a major drive to improve and support the health and wellbeing of 1.3million health service staff.

Speaking to a packed hall at the at the Health and Innovation Expo 2015 conference in Manchester, the NHS England Chief Executive set out how NHS organisations will be supported to help their staff stay well.

This will include serving healthier food, promoting physical activity, reducing stress, and providing health checks covering mental health and musculoskeletal problems – the two biggest causes of sickness absence across the NHS.

Today’s new £5 million initiative has three pillars:

  • First, a major drive for improved NHS staff health, spearheaded by a group of leading NHS hospital, mental health, ambulance, community and clinical commissioning group employers, in partnership with NHS Employers and Public Health England;
  • Second, a new nationally-specified occupational health service for GPs suffering from burnout and stress, in partnership with the Royal College of GPs and BMA General Practitioners Committee;
  • Third, national action by NHS England working with Public Health England and other agencies to challenge and support catering contractors and PFI providers to raise the standards of food and nutrition.

Simon Stevens said: “NHS staff have some of the most critical but demanding jobs in the country. When it comes to supporting the health of our own workforce, frankly the NHS needs to put its own house in order.

“At a time when arguably the biggest operational challenge facing hospitals is converting overspends on temporary agency staff into attractive flexible permanent posts, creating healthy and supportive workplaces is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must-do.

“And at a time when the pressures on GPs have never been greater, we need to extend the local practitioner health programmes that have been shown to help GPs stay healthy and get back to work when sick.

“Equally, it’s time for PFI contractors and catering firms to ‘smell the coffee’ – ditch junk food from hospitals and serve up affordable and healthy options instead. Staff, patients and visitors alike will all benefit.”

“It’s time for the NHS to be the change we all want to see.”

Pillar one – Leading NHS employers to spearhead comprehensive initiative to boost NHS staff health at work

Ten local NHS organisations and NHS England itself, collectively employing around 55,000 staff, have agreed to lead implementation of this new programme. All participating organisations will commit to six key actions:

  • providing the NHS health check at work for NHS staff aged 40 or over – so that staff are able to access it more easily, and receive local signposting and support, while testing new models of health assessments and health-related incentives;
  • providing specific capacity for staff to access physiotherapy and mental health talking therapies, as well as smoking cessation and weight management services;
  • ensuring patients and staff are always offered healthy options in restaurants, cafes and vending machines on site, and actively promoting healthier options through targeted promotions;
  • establishing and promoting a local physical activity ‘offer’ to staff, such as running yoga classes, Zumba classes, or competitive sports teams, and promoting healthy travel to work by offering the Cycle to Work scheme;
  • fully implementing Public Health England’s Workplace Wellbeing Charter assessment and accreditation process, fully implementing the NICE guidelines on workplace health; and
  • identifying a Board level director lead and senior clinician to champion this work, while providing training to all line managers to help them support their staff’s health and wellbeing.

This new initiative is designed to put into practice the commitment made in the NHS Five Year Forward View ‘to ensure the NHS as an employer sets a national example in the support it offers its own staff to stay healthy’.

Mr Stevens told delegates the initiative builds looks to address issues set out in Dr Steve Boorman’s review which found that staff ill-health and related absence is linked to an increased risk of unsafe care, worse experiences of care for patients and poorer outcomes. The annual NHS staff survey also reveals big differences between individual NHS organisations in how their employees say they are supported at work. This includes creating a positive working environment that listens to frontline staff, tackles bullying and discrimination, reduces stress and promotes health and positive mental wellbeing.

It is intended to extend the programme to all NHS employers over the coming five years, targeting those with the highest rates of sickness absence and recruitment and retention pressures in 2016/17.

The initiative draws on the important work done by Dame Carol Black, Chair of the Nuffield Trust and a government advisor on health and work, in this area.

Pillar two – new nationally-specified occupational health service for GPs suffering from burnout and stress

Simon Stevens went on to talk about the increasing pressures in general practice, saying burnout and stress are some of the reasons why GPs leave the profession. Occupational health services are available across the whole of England but with varying levels of follow-up services depending on local commissioning arrangements by CCGs.

NHS England will therefore develop a national service specification for procurement regionally from 1 April 2016, Stevens said.  It will be supported by specialist services for doctors building on those which have been successfully developed in areas such as:

  • The London Practitioner Health Programme, funded by CCGs in and around London;
  • House Concern, a specialist service in the Northern region;
  • Somerset Clinician Support Service, and;
  • MedNet, a service provided by South London and Maudsley NHS Trust and the Tavistock.

Pillar three – national action to challenge and support catering contractors and PFI providers to raise the standards of food and nutrition

Finally, Mr Stevens said NHS England will meet the major hospital catering vendors and PFI contractors to discuss how to ensure that the NHS leads the way in offering healthy food to its staff and patients.

There is much that can be done within existing contracts to provide healthier choices for staff, and some Trusts have already shown what is possible by promoting healthy options (e.g. including fruit rather than confectionary in discounted meal deals) and working to reshape their overall offer.

Mr Stevens stressed that it is unacceptable for health sector organisations to be contracting with caterers who mainly sell foods which don’t meet nutritional standards, or actively promote unhealthy eating. Officials will also push for organisations to ensure that they are providing easily understandable nutritional information and appropriate portion sizes, building on the Government Food Buying Standards to ensure a healthy and sustainable food and drink offer. Food and drink offered in vending machines should meet existing nutritional standards, so that staff have a choice of healthy options, including when working at evenings and weekends.

Estimates from Public Health England put the cost to the NHS of staff absence due to poor health at £2.4bn a year – accounting for around £1 in every £40 of the total budget. This figure is before the cost of agency staff to fill in gaps, as well as the cost of treatment, is taken into account.