NHS urged to do more to prevent staff burnout

Report criticises lack of support for frontline employees, as government launches initiative designed to improve performance and retention rates

All NHS workers will be given safe spaces and a 24-hour helpline to help them cope with traumatic incidents at work, as part of a raft of reforms announced yesterday.

Frontline NHS staff will also be offered psychological assessments and fast-track mental health referrals to help prevent them burning out due to pressure, shiftwork and long hours. A 'workforce wellbeing guardian' will be appointed in every NHS organisation and staff will also see improved and secure rest spaces.

The initiatives would boost staff performance, cut sickness absence rates and help with retention, said Health Education England (HEE), the statutory body responsible for education in the health service. 

HEE made the recommendations in a report that highlights the need to improve the mental health and wellbeing of NHS staff and students.

The report, commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) last year, outlines the adverse impact the current NHS workload is having on the mental health and wellbeing of its staff, with workers facing difficult shiftwork and long hours.

Citing a recent survey of NHS employees, the report found more than three quarters (76 per cent) experienced mental distress or ill health at work, and less than a third felt their organisation took positive action towards improving their health and wellbeing.

The report also called for the NHS to undertake a “root and branch” examination of how it handles complaints, with the current system viewed as too long-winded and drawn out, to the detriment of both patients and staff members. It also called for more support for workers facing complaints.

Professor Ian Cumming, chief executive of HEE, said more support was needed “for those who care” and those studying to become healthcare professionals. He said staff needed to feel they were supported, and that employers had the right procedures in place.

HEE’s recommendations and the continued focus on how employers can promote wellbeing was welcomed by NHS Employers. Sue Covill, its director of development, said NHS trusts were working “extremely hard” to improve the wellbeing of their staff.

“Where this works well, organisations have strong leadership from their board to drive improvements, influence the culture of the organisation and engage with staff to provide the preventions, support and interventions needed,” she said.

Sarb Bajwa, chief executive of the British Psychological Society (BPS), added that the focus on NHS staff wellbeing was “both welcome and long overdue”. 

“The report is an important step forward in recognising the psychological needs of people working a high-stress, target-driven environment like the NHS,” Bajwa said. He added the recommendations would “change the lives of many thousands of employees”, including more than 20,000 psychological practitioners working in the NHS.

However, Dr Andrew Molodynski, mental health policy lead at the British Medical Association (BMA), said more must be done to address wider pressure on the NHS, which included underfunding, workforce shortages and rising patient demand, to reduce the number of employees who needed to seek help in the first place.

Speaking at the launch of the report, health and social care secretary Matt Hancock said it would help guide how the government supported NHS staff, “from creating the right culture of support to giving everyone somewhere to turn in the toughest times”. 

“Why is it that when 1.3 million people have devoted their lives to caring for others, the collective system is uncaring to some?” he said. “We need to change a culture of carrying on regardless, not asking for help, not looking for signs of burnout among our colleagues, thinking everything’s okay as long as someone turns up for work and does their job.”

HEE’s recommendations come on the back of the NHS Long Term Plan, which pledged an extra £2.3bn a year for mental health services. The government said this was being considered as part of a larger, long term workforce plan, due to be published in April.