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For the sake of nurses, patients and the NHS, the workforce plan must support nurses’ mental wellbeing

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“The cost of poor mental health in the NHS equates to £1,794–£2,174 per employee per year.”

“One in three of the NHS workforce have felt unwell due to work-related stress and one in two staff members have attended work despite feeling unwell because they felt pressure.”

These were just two among many worrying headline statistics to come out of a government-commissioned review of staff wellbeing published earlier this year by Health Education England.

“Inevitably any reference to a historic “gap” in understanding is alarming”

The NHS Staff and Learners’ Mental Wellbeing Commission laid bare the ‘emotional labour’ of working in the NHS – and nurses were a specific cause for concern.

Having identified them as one of the groups at greatest risk, the review called for suicide prevention initiatives aimed at nurses.

Speaking at its launch, health secretary Matt Hancock pledged to overhaul mental health support for nurses and other care staff and unveiled a range of measures intended to do so.

“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. “They deserve unwavering support from us all.”

On the back of this review HEE has produced a framework to help employers build a more supportive culture for their staff. Workforce Stress and the Supportive Organisation both sparks concern and offers hope.

“Nursing is by definition emotionally demanding. It is by definition stressful”

Workforce experts warned of a “gap” in understanding of the role trusts can play in minimising stress among health professionals who do “very difficult jobs in challenging situations”.

The document noted that a traditional way of tackling staff stress had been to “promote the idea of individual resilience” and that organisations had been “largely absolved of supporting” staff.

It called for NHS organisations to take more responsibility for protecting their employees’ mental health.

Inevitably any reference to a historic “gap” in understanding is alarming, as is the identification of a culture characterised by deficient organisational support.

However, planning for change will require NHS organisations to recognise and acknowledge their historic and current shortfalls in staff support. If things are to change for the better, transparency about where they have gone wrong is vital – denial will get us nowhere.

Nursing is a profession with unique challenges. Time and again research has confirmed the extent to which patient outcomes depend on the quality of nursing care. Providing high-quality care depends on nurses’ clinical competence combined with empathy, intuition and emotional connection. Nursing is by definition emotionally demanding. It is by definition stressful.

The NHS Long Term Plan promises a wholesale transformation of the NHS in England, and nurses will be key to its implementation and the success of its strategies.

“It is timely to emphasise that a failure to protect nurses’ wellbeing harms individual nurses”

The plan itself recognises that “growing the NHS workforce will partly depend on retaining the staff we have”.

The HEE report on staff mental wellbeing was produced with staff retention in mind. Its objective was to support promises in the long-term plan to create a modern employment culture that promoted flexibility, wellbeing and career development to properly value current NHS staff.

With the NHS workforce implementation plan expected later this year, it is timely to emphasise that a failure to protect nurses’ wellbeing harms individual nurses, jeopardises the profession as a whole, undermines the efficient operating of the health service and puts patients at risk.

Fact: staff mental health affects patient care, staff retention and the ability of the NHS to overcome the significant workforce challenges it faces.

Conclusion: an investment in nurses’ wellbeing is an investment in patient care, the effectiveness of nursing as a profession and the resilience of the NHS as an organisation.

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