The NHS is putting employee health on the Board agenda by appointing Wellbeing Guardians. Shouldn’t every corporate business do the same?

NHS Wellbeing Guardians for employee health

Executive Summary: Time to put health and wellbeing on every Board agenda with Wellbeing Guardians 

  • The impact of the pandemic has put employee health on every Board agenda. In the NHS, employee Wellbeing Guardians will help it stay there. This role could be as valuable in the corporate world as in the NHS.  
  • The NHS has conceived a powerful Board-level role to challenge leaders. It will hold them accountable, and bring data and metrics to drive and inform discussion.  
  • NHS staff are not alone in facing health challenges. Evidence has been mounting for years that all organisations need to do more. COVID-19 will remain a factor for all employers. 
  • Improving employee health management needs strategic investment in systems to complement standard systems. HR and enterprise solutions that were not designed for the purpose.  
  • Adopting a guardian mindset and model will not replace the employee duty of care. Yet it can help develop strong, agile processes for long term employee health and productivity 
  • The connection between employee health, presence and organisational ability to operate should be crystal clear after the past year. It is time for Boards to act. 

The concept of Wellbeing Guardians was first proposed for the NHS in the 2019 Pearson Report and integrated into the updated NHS People Plan 2020/21 published last year.  

There is little doubt that the role of the NHS Wellbeing Guardian is much needed.

The strains of the pandemic are, unfortunately, far from over – yet recovery cannot wait, as we pointed out in our recent article “The Health of Healthcare Workers is the next major care crisis.”

Working with NHS Trusts around the country has given us deep insight into some of the challenges, so we have been very pleased to see this programme building momentum over the past year or two.  

It’s time to put health and wellbeing on every Board agenda. 

Pandemic pressure remains 

As this year unfolds, the impacts on NHS staff of the pandemic and the unrelenting stresses of sustaining patient care are starting to tell. More than 44% of NHS staff reported feeling unwell due to work-related stress in this year’s NHS Staff Survey.  The need for additional funding, breadth and urgency to address growing mental health issues was stressed in a recent Select committee report

 “Workforce burnout across the NHS and care systems now presents an extraordinarily dangerous risk to the proper functioning of both services.”  

Jeremy Hunt – chair, Health and Social Care Committee

The NHS faces a real prospect of losing swathes of staff. The NHS Confederation ‘Putting People First’ report cites anxiety, fear and exhaustion as presenting a real risk of mass staff exodus if health and wellbeing is not prioritised. It collated survey evidence to present a powerful picture:  

  • One survey found post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms among 40% of Intensive Care staff, severe anxiety in 11%, problem drinking in 7% and severe depression in 6%.  
  • One West Midlands survey across ten Trusts found PTSD symptoms in almost 25% of respondents with clinically significant anxiety in nearly 35%
  • A survey of three London Trusts suggested that almost 60% of staff were experiencing common medical disorders and 30% with PTSD 

NHS staff are far from alone  

Better employee health and wellbeing support is needed beyond the NHS.  

The NHS is far from the only organisation whose staff experience mental and physical stress. Not just from COVID-19 – evidence has been growing for years that organisations need to do far more.  

The pandemic has proved that in today’s world it is not enough just to meet basic duties of care and underpin health and safety compliance. Without staff, businesses are nothing.  

The Wellbeing Guardian role has huge potential as a model for all employers to shape responses and take action on health. 

What are Wellbeing Guardians?  

The concept is simple, yet powerful.  

Wellbeing guardians sit at Board level and are often non-executive directors. Their role is to challenge the leadership and hold them accountable for becoming proactive about staff health and wellbeing. They will ensure that employee health is never off the Boardroom table. While bringing appropriate data and metrics to stimulate discussion.  

They are intended to become ubiquitous. Every NHS Trust is being encouraged to appoint one, as are NHS Integrated Care Systems whose staff operate across communities.  

Guided by NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSEI) principles, they will be a top-level advocate for staff. They will help ensure HR, OH and other resources connect and focus to drive tangible employee health benefits.  

Data will play a central role. It will help encourage Boards to focus on imperatives driven by real information instead of assumptions. Data from Occupational Health, staff surveys, and sickness absence and employee relations records will inform workforce strategy and decisions.  

NHSEI is driving implementation, launching its NHS Wellbeing Guardian resources in January 2021. 

Individuals in this role have an opportunity to place staff health and wellbeing at the heart of the organisation. They will encourage accountability at the very top. This resonates hugely with the Empactis view of where responsibility for employee health should sit in every organisation.  

Time to put health and wellbeing on every Board agenda 

The NHS has often led the way on staff health, creating internal programmes and publicly available health advice. It has created many health programmes and information resources designed for the public, which some employers have embraced. 

Some employers have created health and wellbeing initiatives. Yet, proactive strategies for employee health are still far from the norm. The CIPD Health and Wellbeing at Work 2021 survey notes that only a quarter of organisations have increased their budget for health and wellbeing in the past year – despite COVID-19.  

Many corporate programmes tend more towards ‘wellbeing’ and general support than towards ‘health’. Employee health management is about far more than encouraging good lifestyle choices and Employee Assistance Programmes.  

Creating proactive employee health cultures requires leadership from the top. It is to be hoped that pandemic learnings will encourage executive leaders to take employee health more seriously. Unless they do, little can change.  

These words apply just as well to corporate business as they do to the NHS:

“This is an assurance role at board level in which the guardian looks at the organisation’s activities through the health and wellbeing lens. It’s about the health of the organisation, not just the individual. 

The guardian needs to have the ability to check and challenge the executive team on behalf of the board. Nobody should be marking their own homework in this space.” 

Dame Carol Black, Chair Health and Wellbeing Advisory Board NHSE

What does improving employee health management really mean?  

Improving employee health management means embracing proactive health surveillance and empowering managers to engage around health. While setting appropriate systems in place, and putting employee health at the heart of business strategy.  

Organisations must ensure they not just manage employee health records properly but connect health and related processes fully. That includes absence management and employee relations case management. They must incorporate demands such as test management, vaccination status tracking, and individual COVID-19 health risk assessments.   

This takes system-level investment. The workflows designed to manage the complexity of health issues were never part of standard HR and workforce management solutions. This is why the Empactis employee health management system complements such solutions. It equips organisations to better control and improve health management. It delivers seamless, connected, integrated, real-time insight into the dynamics, data and demands of employee health.  

The potential of Wellbeing Guardians in corporate business

Realising the huge organisational opportunities of better staff health management is fundamental to a Wellbeing Guardian’s role in the NHS. They will help its efforts to tackle recruitment, retention, and reduce the cost and risk of sickness absences. Such a role could deliver equally powerful business benefits in a corporate setting. 

Adopting the guardian mindset and model in business would not replace the duty of care for employees. But it would support development of strong, agile processes to look after employee health in the long term.   

The direct connection between NHS staff presence and care for coronavirus patients over the past year is plain to see. Yet the connection between staff health and productivity should be no less clear to commercial organisations. These have experienced a year of furloughs, absences, and unpredictable workforce dynamics. They are no less in need of senior guardianship of staff health to create robust, resilient organisations for the future.  

Empactis helps organisations enable effective processes and policies to positively support employee health. They can do so with the aid of the Empactis Employee Health Management System. Explore the platform 

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