How to support employees affected by the NHS backlog

With one in two employees affected by NHS delays, there are some ways managers can help those struggling to cope, says Claire Glynn

Over five million people are now waiting to access delayed NHS support, with one in ten (11 per cent) employees extremely affected by operation cancellations, according to recent research

Elective surgery for the second-biggest cause of workplace absence – musculoskeletal (MSK) issues – has been particularly hard hit. Some regions, such as south west London, are performing just 10 per cent of the hip and knee surgery they were doing before the pandemic.

While the government works to clear the backlog, many employees are struggling to cope with pain and the distress of not knowing when they might be seen, so it’s important to make them feel supported in the following ways.

Make reasonable adjustments

For individuals experiencing pain linked to movement, simple adjustments to working conditions, such as reducing the amount of walking or steps someone must do, can make a huge difference. So can allowing them to start work a bit later if they’re struggling to sleep.

Many of those affected are feeling very vulnerable and let down, so encourage managers to take an interest and show they care. Encourage them to ask, ‘How are you? Really, how are you?” to get employees to open up about how much pain they’re experiencing and how their everyday life is being affected.

Make sure employees feel safe admitting to managers, or HR, when they’re having a particularly tough day and encourage them to use any emotional support services, such as any Employee Assistance Programmes or physiotherapy helplines that might be in place.

Help people to pace themselves

Help employees to recognise where their limits are when it comes to pain and their ability to exert themselves and pace themselves by not pushing themselves past this. If someone can go at a task for half an hour but after that they’re unable to do anything more for the day, it’s better for them to do that task for 25 minutes, then have a rest and go again. Each time they might be able to exert themselves a little bit more until they’re up to 40 minutes.

Reassure people that you don’t want them to push themselves past their limits and encourage managers to be realistic about setting deadlines and workloads. Encourage individuals to recognise when they’re reaching their limit and use open and honest communication. If they’re having a flare-up, it’s better if they feel able to tell their manager, instead of pushing themselves past their limits and having to take the rest of the day or next day off sick.

Use the psychology of pain management

Pain is an interesting phenomenon in that even if it can’t be reduced, people’s experience of it often can be. For example, biopsychosocial (BPS) pain management models don’t just look at the biology of pain, but also the psychology of pain and how it’s impacting people on a social level, in terms of what people can and can’t do.

By helping employees to focus on what they can do, these models encourage employees to be mindful of their pain thresholds and do what they can to make themselves feel better. Their physical pain isn’t reduced, but their experience of the pain is as they’re able to do more, such as attending work, whereas maybe they had to stay in bed before. Clinical assessments can also be used to identify and refer into suitable clinical reconditioning or strengthening support.

Helping the employee to stay as strong as possible before surgery is important, since they’ll need a period of rehabilitation after surgery. The fitter and stronger they are going into surgery, the quicker their recovery will be and the less time they’ll need off work. It’s about putting the support in now to make people feel cared for and reduce absence down the line.

Claire Glynn is head of musculoskeletal services at PAM Group