Based on NHS employee data, this ultimate guide offers support and advice for boosting the wellbeing of NHS employees. A must-read for NHS leaders seeking to understand their employee’s wellbeing priorities.
The NHS has supported the nation for over 75 years, treating over a million people a day in England alone. Founded in 1948, the NHS was the first universal health system to be available to all, free at the point of delivery. Decades later, for nine in 10 people the NHS makes them most proud to be British.
Such an institution, of course, has an impressive workforce. In fact, the NHS is the biggest employer in Europe and the world's largest employer of highly skilled professionals. Incredibly, with more than 1.3 million people across the health service in England devoting their working lives to caring for others, one in every 25 working age adults work for the NHS.
With a huge workforce, it is so important that NHS leaders look out for their employees' wellbeing. As the mental health charity Mind explains, employees with better wellbeing are more productive, stay with organisations longer, and deliver better outcomes.
To understand the priorities of NHS employees, it is crucial to look at the data from the NHS Staff Survey 2022. Key improvement areas concerned staff related illness due to mental health and burnout. This guide highlights such issues and offers support on how to tackle them. It is so important that NHS leaders address these issues as a healthy team leads to a great experience for all their team members, and ultimately better care for their patients.
The latest NHS staff survey shows that more than a third of people working in the health service say they feel burnt out. Almost 40% find their work frustrating or emotionally exhausting and 46% feel worn out at the end of their working day.
45% have felt unwell as a result of work-related stress in the past 12 months in 2022 and only a quarter said there were enough staff at their organisation for them to do their job properly.
Such stress impacts work as over the course of 2022, some 6 million days were recorded for staff being sick due to mental health and wellbeing related reasons. The number of reported days of absences related to anxiety, stress, depression, and other psychiatric illnesses increased by 26% between 2019 and 2022.
In more recent data, the NHS Absence rates in April 2023, continue to show how stress and mental health is the leading cause for sickness. In April 2023, the overall sickness absence rate for England was 4.5% and the most reported reason for this sickness– accounting for over 472,500 full time equivalent days lost and 25.5% of all sickness absence in April 2023– was anxiety, stress, depression, or other psychiatric illnesses. This has increased since the previous month which was 24.2% in March 2023.
Of course, the pandemic accelerated the pre-existing problem of poor wellbeing amongst NHS staff. As The Times reported, a survey of staff in intensive care units at the height of the Covid-19 crisis found that more than half had developed some kind of mental disorder including depression or anxiety and 46.5 per cent were suffering from probable post-traumatic stress.
In their report, The Times also found that doctors are twice as likely — and nurses are four times as likely — to take their own lives compared with workers in other professions. When it started in 2008, NHS Practitioner Health, which provides support for doctors, had 200 patients a year. Now it has 200 medics seeking help every week. Almost all reach the threshold for a formal diagnosis of mental illness; around a third have had suicidal thoughts.
In the post-pandemic landscape, many staff face highly pressurised working conditions, even as we eased out of Covid-19, with demand for healthcare significantly surpassing supply. For patients, this results in longer wait times but for NHS staff it means more pressure and stress. It is therefore essential that NHS leaders are proactive in looking after their employee’s wellbeing.
It is crucial for an employer to understand the consequences of poor wellbeing amongst staff. As the most recent NHS data shows, one huge impact is a lack of retention.
Indeed, 32% often think about leaving the NHS, with this sentiment highest amongst staff in Ambulance trusts. Most recently, The Guardian reported in July 2023 that nearly 170,000 workers left their jobs in the NHS in England last year.
The report also explains that more than 41,000 nurses were among those who left their jobs in NHS hospitals and community health services, with the highest leaving rate for at least a decade. The number of staff leaving overall rose by more than a quarter in 2022, compared to 2019.
A survey of the members of the Royal College of General Practitioners in 2022 found 39 per cent of the GP workforce across the UK were seriously considering leaving the profession in the next five years. These are not sustainable figures for an organisation in which human beings are the most valuable resource.
The NHS Staff Survey 2022 highlights that employees are encountering stress and burnout at work which has a detrimental impact on their wellbeing. However, not only staff are impacted, the NHS itself is suffering from a lack of staff retention and also thousands of lost working days.
The NHS acknowledges such problems in its Long Term Plan. Launched in January 2019, the plan sets out its priorities for how this money would be spent over the next ten years to improve and reform the NHS.
A key point in their plan is “Backing their workforce”. This includes, “continuing to increase the NHS workforce, training and recruiting more professionals” but also “making the NHS a better place to work, so more staff stay in the NHS and feel able to make better use of their skills and experience for patients”. The latter point shows the attempt to retain staff in the long run but there is also simple shorter-term help that the NHS can promote to their staff.
To tackle stress and burnout, NHS leaders or Wellbeing Guardians can also advocate the little things that can make a huge difference to your employee wellbeing:
When you’re in the work-zone, it can be hard to take a break, especially in a work environment like the ward, when you feel like you’re constantly needed. In fact, nurses work shifts of up to 12 hours often with nothing to eat but crisps from a vending machine. However, it is so important for your mental wellbeing to establish boundaries and take breaks.
Research has shown that only one in three people step away from their work to respite for lunch. Other workers will skip the important meal, or just snack throughout the working day while still at their desk. In the long run, this will cause employees to burn out, even if at the time you feel as if you are being more productive.
After work, take time to do something that you enjoy to relax after a long shift. Whether that is through cooking something up in the kitchen or going to the gym, just give your mind respite to allow itself to prepare for the next day.
Exercise, or any physical activity, boosts wellbeing in the workplace. Exercise reduces stress, since sweating releases endorphins that help relax your mind, and it also reduces fatigue by improving circulation which provides an instant rush of energy, to name a couple of benefits.
Apps such as Myles Wellbeing are great for advocating employee physical activity. Friendly competition is always a good incentive to get your employees moving. With a leaderboard, you can compete with your work friends in a fun and (quite literally) rewarding way. Creating a collaborative and encouraging work environment which helps your team get physical can really boost your employee’s wellbeing.
Physical activity is great, but sleep is vital to wellbeing. It is recommended that adults aim to get at least seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Sleep is essential to pretty much every process in the body, and our brain carries out many of these during sleep. If we do not get enough sleep, our physical and mental functioning–including concentration, productivity and alertness– will be negatively affected the next day.
To ensure you are getting enough sleep, try out a sleep tracker to see how many hours of sleep you are getting each night, or establish a realistic bedtime and stick to it every night, even on the weekends, to reach your sleeping goal.
If you talk about mental health as an NHS leader, both good and bad, your team will feel that you’re approachable if they are struggling or stressed. Ensuring that talking about mental health isn’t a taboo subject is key to employees feeling comfortable in chatting to you.
Research from Mind shows that one in four people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England, and so ensuring employees have support in the workplace is key.
Improving employee wellbeing, particularly in a high-stress environment such as the hospital ward or an ambulance, is no easy fix. However, if NHS leaders and Wellbeing Guardians advocate good working habits such as taking breaks and establishing a work-life balance, employees will find their daily lives less stressful, reducing the chances of burnout.
No employer wants to find that their team actively wants to leave their job, especially by problems that are fixable with some simple solutions. By carrying out such extensive surveys it is clear that NHS leaders want to listen to their employees and help them improve their working life. A healthy work relationship improves team performance, creates a greater work community and improves productivity.
The NHS supported an estimated 570 million patient contacts with GP, community, mental health, hospital, NHS 111 and ambulance services in 2021/22. This is equivalent to every person in England being assessed, treated and cared for by the NHS 10 times a year. With NHS staff continually helping millions of people, we can also help NHS employees by supporting their wellbeing needs. Increased energy levels and better health in employees will ultimately result in better care of patients.
Dr Helen Garr joined us at the NHS Staff Wellbeing Collective 2023 to look at the 5 ways to wellbeing through her talk titled "Go To Rome"