Change the nature of the workplace to tackle NHS workforce issues

The announcement by the Secretary of State of a raft of measures designed to improve the mental health of NHS staff is an important and welcome one. It is a first step in the NHS making good on the NHS Ten Year Plan’s desire to see employers having “a key role to play in supporting their staff to stay well and in work.”

It is to be hoped that, when they come to examine their role, the NHS Workforce Wellbeing Guardians will look at the extent to which there are a range of health promotion and health prevention tools in place. However, it will also be important that they look at the nature of the workplace itself.

Too often, when people are experiencing stress at work or are off sick, we ask them: “What is wrong with you?” and: “What treatment do you need?”. We have a tendency to treat the individual and then return them to the same environment. Of course, this is important and we all need to take responsibility for our own (mental) health, but do we talk enough about how we can change the environment? We may talk about ‘reasonable adjustments,’ but are we doing enough to change the workplace?

At a recent meeting of the International Initiative on Mental Leadership in Stockholm on workplace mental health initiatives, we heard a similar refrain from delegates from across the globe. A meta-analysis of the available evidence highlighted that a lack of procedural justice, imbalanced job design, occupational uncertainty and a lack of value and respect in the workplace all contributed to mental illness at work.

The meeting agreed that there is no silver bullet. Rather there is an understanding from a broad range of countries that there needs to be a systematic approach that is embedded in everyday practice. We need to take a comprehensive approach to workplace mental health that includes:

The high sickness rates within the NHS are a warning that there are ongoing, systemic problems within the workplace that require urgent attention. If we fail to address them, we will fail the NHS not only for the next ten years, but for the foreseeable future. The good news is that there is good evidence and consistent experience about what works.


This article originally appeared on the NHS Confederation site