The Health of Healthcare Workers is the next major care crisis for the NHS – and action cannot wait until the pandemic is behind us

NHS staff health crisis

NHS staff health crisis is becoming a critical case 

The enormous efforts of frontline NHS staff in the pandemic are crystal clear. Although the acute pressure of high patient volumes has receded somewhat, it has grown elsewhere. NHS Trusts continue to cope with the vaccine rollout, new variant infections, restarting key services, and a vast care backlog. Yet a NHS staff health crisis is brewing.

The mental and physical health impacts of this pressure on NHS staff are becoming evident. Studies suggest PTSD, anxiety, and common medical disorders are surging due to fear, stress, and exhaustion.

There can be few who would deny that it is time that we cared more for the health of our healthcare workers. This is the challenge with which the NHS is now grappling.

How can it learn from the crisis? How can it improve overall and occupational health support in an integrated way?

Our employee health director Dr Steve Boorman recently took part in a powerful discussion on the “Talking Work and Health” podcast. He was invited in his capacity both as Chair of the Council for Work and Health and the author of the Boorman Review. This seminal report remains one of the foundations on which future strategies for managing and improving the health of NHS staff are being built.

Dr Boorman is currently consulting with NHSE&I, and he outlined a serious view of the coming crisis:

“It is when the firefight is over that some of these problems and issues manifest themselves. The NHS is one of the largest employers in the world. Their staff is a microcosm of the general population [who] will also have undiagnosed or relatively undermanaged long-term conditions that have been minimised during the COVID crisis because access to healthcare has been a challenge. As these problems manifest… we will start to see the scale of the iceberg below the surface in terms of ill-health amongst NHS staff.”

Connecting staff health to wider operations

It was the Boorman Review that first clearly associated NHS staff health and wellbeing with better patient care, better performance against regulatory targets, and better operational efficiency.  In the wake of the pandemic, this association is now central to new NHS models such as its Staff Health and Wellbeing Framework and introduction of new Wellbeing Guardians on the boards of Trusts and Integrated Care networks across the country.

Pandemic health impacts include not just mental health, which is showing through very worryingly in specific roles such as nursing, but social health also, as many healthcare workers have felt they must stay away from home or have been unable to return to overseas families. Then there is physical health, where the impacts of extreme workloads and use of PPE are among the factors.

Dr Boorman states that: “One thing the COVID crisis did is to bring out the fact that Occupational Health does not just need to be a breakdown service. It became visibly involved in PPE, testing, vaccinations, providing better support in a more visible way in many NHS organisations.”

“Occupational health in the NHS has often been delivered through a Portakabin in the back of the organisation and not seen as an integral part of doing the everyday work.”

He also highlighted how important it was to shift the perception at a fundamental level. In talking of his previous corporate experience, he recalled that they “tried to establish occupational health as a genuine employee benefit, seen as showing that your employer cared about you and that you were a valuable asset.” He asserted firmly that OH cannot any longer simply be a referral made after sickness absence that has raised questions about job performance.

Cobblers’ children have no shoes

The priorities for the NHS looking forward undoubtedly means ensuring that those who care for everyone’s health are themselves cared for.  It is high time that the affliction known as ‘Cobblers’ Children Syndrome’ is eradicated and ad hoc staff health support becomes a thing of the past.

Looking ahead, Dr Boorman says: “We face a situation where retaining staff and attracting staff into the organisation are going to be a big challenge… The priorities for OH in this next phase are to support the new People Plan … that talks of changing the culture to one where the NHS is genuinely valued as a great place to work. It means integrating OH far more into the organisation and increasing the focus on health and wellbeing and keeping people well.”

Capturing and sharing the learnings

Reflecting on how the NHS can learn from what has gone before as it copes with this NHS staff health crisis, Dr Boorman suggests that looking beyond the organisation is as relevant as sharing best practices: “Good corporate organisations invest in occupational health as part of making them competitively successful. The COVID crisis has helped boards in the NHS recognise that it is essential to business continuity.”

However, although the NHS can learn from the experiences of the corporate marketplace and best practices, he also says: “I genuinely think that this is an opportunity for the NHS to lead… As occupational health in the NHS is transformed it can give learnings to wider business and help shape the agenda for employee health going forwards.”

 “You can’t have a great place to work that doesn’t maintain good staff health and wellbeing.”

Dr Steve Boorman

Empactis works with numerous NHS Trusts across the country, helping enable them to connect staff health management and occupational health delivery with other key processes including absence management and HR case management. In addition, its employee health management system has enabled NHS customers to connect emerging COVID-specific management challenges such as staff testing, vaccination, and risk assessment. Request our NHS case studies.