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What the NHS annual staff survey can teach us about workplace stress

20 May 2019 By Jennifer Gardner

The world’s biggest workforce study reveals a new way to think about emotional wellbeing, says Jennifer Gardner

Is stress a concern for your organisation? As one of the world’s largest employers, it certainly is for the NHS. Without staff, the NHS could not deliver any patient care – so it is crucial we prioritise the wellbeing of our staff and that this becomes central to our daily work.

Stress is believed to account for more than 30 per cent of sickness absence in England’s health service. The financial cost is estimated at between £300-£400 million per year.

The latest NHS annual staff survey – the world's biggest workforce study – found almost four in 10 NHS staff reported feeling unwell because of work-related stress in the last year. Stress remains a growing problem in UK workplaces and the NHS.

Stress can manifest in different ways as we all respond to pressure differently. The resources we have available to us influence our ability to cope with the demands placed on us. Where these demands remain and continue, this is when we can start to experience stress.

There are common factors that can lead to stress and poor health with heavy workloads and poor management style to blame, according to the recent report from the CIPD and Simplyhealth. It shows the top three causes of stress-related absence are workloads, management style and relationships at work.

It’s easier to see when someone is physically unwell than emotionally unwell, and for many people it can feel easier to talk with someone about physical health than about emotional wellbeing.

Some of the first signs that indicate someone may be suffering from too much pressure or stress can be changes in behaviour or performance. Being aware of this personally and as a manager can be critical to taking a supportive, preventative approach.

We need to bridge gaps in understanding to enable us to talk openly and regularly about stress and emotional health.

How are you feeling today NHS?

Working with NHS staff to develop our popular and easy to use ‘How are you feeling today NHS?’ wellbeing toolkit, we identified, by asking the question, that staff most associated their emotional wellbeing in one of three ways: on the edge, on a go-slow or, hopefully, having a good day.

When we’re on the edge, we feel overwhelmed and out of control. We find it hard to think through problems. We’re more likely to rush decisions and lose patience. When we’re on a go-slow, we feel disengaged and struggle to find the energy to fulfil our responsibilities.

By contrast, on a good day, our motivation and energy feel easy to find. We feel interested, want to do what we are doing and have confidence we can cope with whatever gets thrown at us.

Whether or not you’re working in the NHS, these three identifiers can be used to recognise your own and your staff’s emotional wellbeing and stress levels. They can also be a good way to check in with your staff and start a conversation.

NHS England’s Health and Wellbeing Framework, launched last year, sets out the standards for what NHS organisations need to do to support staff feeling well, healthy and happy at work, and focuses on eight key elements.

The framework includes examples of how NHS organisations are tackling stress and emotional wellbeing. Some have put in place train-the-trainer programmes, online mindfulness support, resilience training and have started to train managers and embed health and wellbeing more effectively into line management.

These organisations have also worked to help encourage a culture change where conversations about stress and emotional wellbeing are open and accepted.

To understand more about stress and its effect on staff and the workplace, read our 'Stress and its impact on the workplace' information.

Then, look at NHS Employers’ emotional wellbeing toolkit to understand the contributors to decreased emotional wellbeing and how to start conversations and encourage improvements.

Let’s start those workplace conversations about emotional wellbeing.

Jennifer Gardner is health and wellbeing lead at NHS Employers

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