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Government pledges to overhaul mental health support for NHS staff in wake of HEE report

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Matt Hancock has pledged to overhaul mental health support for nurses and other care staff, after a report laid bare the “emotional labour” of working in the NHS.

The government-commissioned review of staff wellbeing called for suicide prevention initiatives for nurses, having described nursing as among the professional groups most at risk of taking their own life.

“NHS staff have been there for me, and they have been there for my family – so I’m determined to make sure we are there for them too” 

Matt Hancock

In total, 33 recommendations have been made in the report – titled NHS Staff and Learners’ Mental Wellbeing Commission – which was written by the government arms’-length body Health Education England.

The review, led by former HEE chair Sir Keith Pearson, was commissioned last year by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

At an event to launch it today, the health secretary will unveil potential plans derived from the document, which could see NHS staff offered new measures to support their mental health, including post-trauma support, 24/7 confidential mental health support services and fast-tracked mental health referrals.

In response to the commission’s report, Mr Hancock has pledged that NHS staff should be given immediate access to dedicated mental health support when they need it.

In producing the review, HEE heard from staff whose wellbeing had been affected by their experiences of working in the NHS, as well as talking to family members who had lost relatives through suicide whilst working for the health service.

The body also visited organisations that were already demonstrating good practice in supporting staff mental and physical wellbeing to understand how these initiatives could be rolled out across the NHS.

“Nursing staff are working in ever more pressurised environments and we know that their physical and mental health can sometimes suffer as a result”

Donna Kinnair

The report details recommendations to support NHS staff’s mental health and includes two dedicated to implementing National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance on preventing suicide.

One recommendation highlights that an initial focus should be made by the NHS on the professional groups that are most at risk of suicide, such as nurses and especially female nurses.

Other recommendations set out in the document include monitoring staff transitioning from education, a focus on clinical supervision and providing pyschologically safe and confidential spaces for staff.

The report was produced to support the new NHS Long Term Plan and deliver on its promises to create a modern employment culture which promotes flexibility, wellbeing and career development to properly value current NHS staff.

According to the DHSC, the health secretary’s speech today will highlight his personal commitment to transforming the culture for NHS staff as outlined in the long-term plan, with a potential new package of support for staff.

Plans that Mr Hancock will discuss, and that are derived from the recommendations in the report, include post-incident support for those working on the NHS frontline, the development of a dedicated mental health support service, and fast-tracked mental health referrals.

“It is critical that we understand the needs of staff and learners and the NHS does all it can to support the wellbeing of its workforce” 

Sue Covill

In addition, the potential package could see improved rest spaces for on-call staff and trainees, and an NHS Workforce Wellbeing Guardian.

The government arms’-length body said the measures outlined today should help make “positive progress” for NHS organisations in terms of sickness absence rates, staff performance and retention.

Meanwhile, the DHSC said the report’s recommendations would also be considered as part of the forthcoming Workforce Implementation Plan led by NHS Improvement chair Dido Harding and Leeds Teaching Hospitals Trust chief executive, Julian Hartley.

Ahead of his speech today, Mr Hancock said: “I love the NHS and have enormous respect and admiration for the dedicated staff who make our health service what it is today.”

Department of Health and Social Care

Matt Hancock

Matt Hancock

“Working under pressure, NHS staff put themselves in some of the most challenging situations imaginable as part of their unwavering commitment to caring for us all,” he said. “So they deserve unwavering support from us all.”

The health secretary added that he was “so proud” of the service staff give and, therefore, believed that the people working in the health service should be “our utmost priority”.

“Today’s important report helps guide how we can do that, from creating the right culture of support to giving everyone somewhere to turn in the toughest times,” said Mr Hancock.

“NHS staff have been there for me, and they have been there for my family – so I’m determined to make sure we are there for them too,” he said.

Professor Ian Cumming, chief executive at HEE said: “More support is needed for those who care and better care is needed for those studying to become healthcare professionals.”

“This is why I am committed to making sure that the commission takes full advantage of this opportunity to make a real difference to the NHS health and care workforce and to those studying to become our future healthcare staff,” he added.

 “More support is needed for those who care and better care is needed for those studying to become healthcare professionals”

Ian Cumming

Professor Cumming noted that it was “vital” for staff to feel supported and that employers have the right procedures in place to offer the help that may be needed.

He said: “The mental wellbeing of staff contributes positively to patient care, so we must get it right.”

“As a caring and compassionate organisation, the NHS attracts staff with these values, but it must be recognised that in giving care you also absorb some of the concerns and issues of the people that you are caring for,” said Professor Cumming.

“We must do better for those in the caring professions and we must care better for those studying to be professionals, he said. “This commission will make that happen.”

In response, Professor Dame Donna Kinnair, acting chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Nursing staff are working in ever more pressurised environments and we know that their physical and mental health can sometimes suffer as a result, leaving them with little in the tank to care for themselves.”

”The government is right to recognise this as an issue and to commit to providing support for those in difficulty,” she added.

Unison head of health Sara Gorton said:  “The mental health needs of staff should be a priority. They’re working long hours, in highly stressful conditions, often without a rest.

“NHS workers can’t help patients get better unless they are well too,” she said. ”Proper solutions are needed though, not quick fixes.

“These proposals are a step in the right direction. But far-reaching reforms are also necessary, including proper breaks, manageable workloads, and protection from abuse and attack,” she added.

Sue Covill, director of development and employment at NHS Employers, part of the umbrella organisation NHS Confederation, said: “The NHS could not deliver quality care to patients without its staff.”

”It is critical that we understand the needs of staff and learners and the NHS does all it can to support the wellbeing of its workforce,” she added.

Ms Covill said the findings and recommendations “continue to highlight the challenging environment” staff and learners work in, but also the ”dedication and commitment of our staff to continue to deliver the best care they can to patients”.

“We welcome the recommendations and the continued focus on key steps employers and staff can take to support and promote wellbeing,” she said.

“NHS trusts are working extremely hard to improve and support the wellbeing of their staff,” she added. ”Where this works well, organisations have strong leadership from their board to drive improvements, influence the culture of the organisation and engage with staff to provide the preventions, support and interventions needed.”

Paul Jenkins, chair of the Mental Health Network, which is also part of the NHS Confederation, said: “The NHS is founded on care and compassion and that has to extend to our staff.

“Most people are attracted to work in health and care because of the emotional reward that comes with a sense of having made a meaningful contribution to the life of another. These emotional rewards, however, come at a potential price which most people entering into the work do not bargain on.

“This report shines a welcome light and makes sound recommendations on looking after the mental wellbeing of our staff and learners,” he said. “We particularly welcome the announcement of the ‘wellbeing guardians’ who will champion staff wellbeing at board level.”

He added: “This report presents a clear case for change which will require a significant shift in behaviour and culture across the whole of the NHS and social care. But this is essential if the NHS is to achieve the Long Term Plan’s goal of being the best place to work.”

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Readers' comments (5)

  • This is encouraging news. I do believe Organisations already have processes in place for staff wellbeing and our Occupational Health department takes self-referrals and they can support staff with a counselling service. We also have health and wellbeing champions. If there was someone at Board level who could speak up for staff Health and Wellbeing I honestly think that would be a positive thing and a way for change to happen faster. I like the idea of a staff wellbeing Guardian at Board Level.

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  • I guess this report is also something that will be used to support staff such as Allied Health Professional too.

    People who work long hours, lone working, on-call working, standby at home 24/7 (for half of the year) found in some instances of rural working, without the support of colleagues, bank or agency staff to cover holidays or ensure that services will still run if they are not around.

    Has this group been considered too ? . Forgive me for stating the obvious but the NHS is far more than this, there are many other professions that are part of the team, that need to be recognised too.

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  • It shouldn't just be "NHS" staff - all healthcare workers across all sectors are just as at risk - positive steps but needs more consideration about how it is implemented

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  • Mental health well being, would be greatly helped if their was safe staffing for all professions, particularly where staff vacancy is not at the full complement. In rural hospitals staff will often make up this short fall, by working many hours on-call, often at weekends and during the week. Who is looking at this ? staff themselves can only attempt to change things by taking out a "Grievance" against the employer, when actually the employer (who are aware of this issue at management level) should be upholding the policies that we find in HR. These are the real issues that are not being addressed in our NHS, and lead to individual and family difficulties break up and burn-out and a danger to the sustainability of the service. In some financially strapped organisations this #fail may quite happily be seen by management as a chance to reduce or cut a service.

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  • We recently discovered that the medical team at our Trust had a dedicated doctor for their health and wellbeing.

    Must be nice, being a doctor.

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