NHS England Launches New Initiative to Address Staff Absences

NHS England has today announced an initiative intended to impact positively on the health and wellbeing of staff in the service.

The Chief Executive of NHS England, , will outline the plans aimed at the organisation’s 1.3 million employees speaking at the NHS Innovation Expo conference.

Measures introduced as part of these plans will include serving healthier food, promoting physical activity, reducing stress, and providing health checks covering mental health and musculoskeletal problems.

These latter two issues are purportedly the largest causes of illness absences in the NHS. Overall absences in the health service are estimated to cost the taxpayer £2.4 billion per year. To put this figure into perspective, this amounts to approximately 2.5 per cent of the total NHS budget.

Three principles will be at the heart of this new health initiative. Firstly, there will be a major drive intended to promote improved NHS staff health. This will be conducted by a group of leading NHS hospital, mental health, ambulance, community and clinical commissioning group employers, and partnered with NHS Employers and Public Health England.

Secondly, a new occupational health service will be particularly targeted at GPs; a tranche of the NHS that particularly suffers from high levels of stress and burnout owing to long hours. This aspect of the programme will be partnered with the Royal College of GPs and BMA General Practitioners Committee.

And, thirdly, there will be a specific focus on catering, with the aim of delivering healthier food options within the NHS. In order to achieve this, NHS England will work closely with Public Health England.

Speaking on the new initiative, Stevens stated that “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.”

However, the approach to addressing the issue has been criticised in some quarters.

By implementing this new approach to health within the NHS, the health service is explicitly acknowledging that working within the clinical professions is becoming increasingly stressful. When this is combined with the relentless pursuit of cost saving measures, attempting to squeeze ever more juice from already stretched resources, then this inevitably results in more sickness absences.

Some have suggested that this an unsustainable situation that must be addressed directly, rather than merely attempting to alleviate problems with measures that singularly fail to tackle the root cause of the issue head-on.

Additionally, the overall budget for the scheme is £5 million, which when spread across the 200 trusts in the NHS ultimately represents a rather paltry figure, considering that the average trust typically employs around 5,000 people. One can calculate that this initiative will represent little more than a few pounds investment per member of staff.

Nonetheless, Christina McAnea, UNISON Head of Health and chair of the NHS Social Partnership Forum, was still willing to publicly acknowledged what she considered to be a positive development. McAnea commented that “the health and well-being of NHS staff at work has a direct impact on patients and this initiative rightly starts recognising that. Addressing physical and mental health issues is important and a step in the right direction as it will help tackle some of the major causes of stress at work.”

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