Newcastle Occupational Health Service: Flourishing through innovation

Josh BellThe Occupational Health Service (OHS) at Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust won the 2020 OH Team award from the Society of Occupational Medicine for their innovative response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Their creative new and adapted offers lifted spirits and helped colleagues manage their physical and emotional wellbeing. The team is also supporting a COVID vaccination drive which has achieved 84% first dose take-up.

The first national lockdown in March 2020 changed life overnight for the Newcastle OHS team. “All our usual face-to-face MSK services were suspended,” recalls Steven Forster, Clinical Lead Service Manager. “We wanted to find ways to still be helpful and effective while not seeing patients.”

The impact of COVID on emotional wellbeing was quickly identified as a high risk. Regular physiotherapy, psychology and counselling services for staff were put on hold to focus on COVID support. On 24 March 2020, the team launched a dedicated telephone helpline for all trust staff. The helpline staff received psychology training and support to help them advise callers in distress and refer them for further help if needed. The helpline received 655 calls in the first four weeks. Most callers (68%) simply wanted advice and information but a third  had anxieties and concerns however, such as their risk of getting COVID.

An email account was also set up for requests for rapid swab screening tests, which handled up to 1,500 emails per day.

New online offers

The OHS team explored other ways to support staff. “We needed a rapid response but this was the beginning of the pandemic, before the world switched to a streamed lifestyle,” says Josh Bell, OH Physiotherapy Lead and a champion for the Trust’s wider Flourish wellbeing initiative. “Everyone worked together to innovate using all means of technology available to us.”

A weekly Pilates class which typically attracted six or seven staff was recreated as a 20-minute livestream, attended by over 300 staff in the first six months. Sessions were broadcast live from the OH department, with masked staff going through the moves to encourage others to join from their workplaces.  A weekly mindfulness session was added to help staff manage stress and emotion.

“Supporting staff to stay in the present and be aware of what’s happening in their minds can really help them cope with challenging situations,” comments Dr Elizabeth Murphy, Clinical Director. “We’ve done several reviews of the themes raised with OHS during the pandemic and have shared simple strategies for coping with the new behaviours necessary to be safe at work.”

More streamed activities followed. A daily lunchtime workout was offered to both locals and NHS staff. A planned ‘Introduction to Pain’ session was modified for interactive online delivery. All the new streamed offers are still running, though likely future needs are being assessed.

Expanding staff health support

The skills and networks of the OH Service also made them useful partners on wider staff health efforts. An integrated physiotherapy and psychology team supports staff with long COVID through telephone and video consultations, complementing specialist medical services. OHS nurses support internal test and trace, working closely with infection control. The team is also helping the Newcastle staff vaccination programme with mobile booking support and outreach to ethnic minority, high risk and clinically vulnerable staff. 84% of staff have had a first dose, one of the highest vaccination rates nationally.

Enhanced OHS for the future

OHS members are integrated into forward-looking trust initiatives on self-health checks and support service roadmaps. A joint effort with the chaplaincy service is assessing how shielding and wider social impacts of the pandemic have affected staff wellbeing. “The team responded with compassion and care to the emerging challenges throughout the period,” reflects Dr Murphy. “Now we’re innovating to support enhanced delivery of supportive OHS for the foreseeable future.”

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