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'Talking therapies will help our staff more than dance classes'

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Zumba classes grabbed the media headlines when Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, announced that the fitness craze was part of its commitment to support the health and wellbeing of the NHS workforce.

Ruth Warden

However, other parts of his proposal that didn’t get the same coverage will reap much better rewards.

We are all aware of our physical wellbeing and health - it is something we can see and feel - but are we as aware of our emotional and mental health? Mr Stevens mentioned talking therapies as part of the support to NHS staff and it is this offer that could make the most difference.

We know from speaking to employers that sickness absence can be due to stress, and in some trusts stress is now the biggest reason for sickness absence. It is easy to see why - we are working in a pressured environment, challenges are inherent in the jobs we do in the NHS and our working life isn’t getting any easier. Finding solutions and helping when pressures start to affect staff is vital to delivering high-quality patient care.

Employers often tell us the first time they become aware of a stress-related illness is when a member of staff is off sick. Mental health isn’t as visible as physical health. If my back hurts you will probably see it I as wince with pain or limp across the room, but if I’ve got an emotional or mental health problem, you can’t see that as easily. It doesn’t mean that the hurt is any less, just that it isn’t as obvious. Maybe we are just better at hiding it, or perhaps not as good at seeing it in our colleagues.

Last year, NHS Employers worked with occupational psychology company Robertson Cooper, which specialises in helping staff and organisations develop resilience skills. It helped us to develop an emotional wellbeing toolkit to help NHS staff identify how they are feeling and to have conversations about their mental health.

If we can start to talk about it, we can start to do something about it. Nurses are the largest section of the workforce in the NHS, and we know they can benefit most from NHS England’s suggestions in leading the way in opening up about stress and emotional wellbeing.

Crucially, the toolkit describes emotional wellbeing from a behavioural perspective. It describes what you might see either in your own or a colleague’s behaviour that might indicate something is wrong. We worked with NHS staff to ask them to explain what it feels like to work in the NHS. We asked them to describe what they see in themselves and colleagues when emotional health is good and when it isn’t so good. We then asked what they thought the affect on patients and colleagues might be if they experienced these behaviours. The findings were powerful.

Unless we start to have conversations with colleagues or line managers about how we are feeling, we cannot move on to deal with the wider issues. The toolkit also provides a wealth of information, sign- posting to support individuals, teams and line managers to start to take action that will support positive emotional wellbeing.

Access to talking therapies and support for mental and emotional health is a key part of the proposal put forward by Mr Stevens and is something that all staff could benefit from - anything to reduce stress is good. We know this will be available to a range of different organisations across the NHS including acute, community, mental health, primary care and clinical commissioning groups. Dance classes may have got everyone talking about stress, but the actions which we all need to commit to will be more important to NHS staff in the long run.

Ruth Warden is assistant director of the Development and Employment Team at NHS Employers

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