Improving mental wellbeing in the workplace has to be implemented from the top-down, with NHS leaders making it a priority and not just a promise. By Paul Farmer

Emergency workforce

The mental health of our health service is at breaking point and its time that its leaders sat up and paid attention to it. The latest statistics from NHS Digital reveal a worrying trend of staff citing poor mental health as a reason for taking sick leave, with managers most likely to mention stress, anxiety, and depression as their reason for absence.

If the NHS is losing 348,028 working days due to anxiety, stress and depression in just one month, it’s clear that something isn’t working. These numbers are much higher than for employees in other sectors and yet we all rely on NHS staff being well enough to come to work to care for us, our families and friends.

Carers need care too!

The numbers also demonstrate that the NHS is not making good on its commitment to embedding the core and enhanced mental health standards outlined in the 2017 government-commissioned “Thriving at Work” report. Despite vocal support at the time of its publication, these statistics show that little progress has been made in improving staff wellbeing.

The NHS again committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of its staff at the beginning of this year in the Pearson Report but its “recommendations have been left gathering dust”, while staff mental health continues to suffer. And while it has been encouraging to see efforts towards improvement being made, for example through the development of the NHS Workforce Health and Wellbeing Framework, we need a clearer understanding of what progress is being made.

The NHS loses 348,028 working days due to anxiety, stress and depression in just one month

The importance of the mental wellbeing of NHS staff can’t be overstated. It is what can make the difference between someone receiving good or poor quality care and impacts chances of recovery. This is true for all parts of the NHS, but none more so than in mental health services, which entirely rely on staff to deliver them.

While other parts of the health service might be able to use technological developments and advanced equipment to complement staff efforts, mental health services are entirely reliant on employees who are motivated and well-trained enough to meet people’s needs.

Healthy mind equals healthy body

These concerning statistics come at a time when we know there is increasing pressure on the health service, particularly in mental health where demand continues to grow. This year we have seen NHS leaders lay out ambitious improvement plans to meet these pressures but none of them will become a reality without the right workforce. These leaders must acknowledge that the recruitment and retention of happy and healthy staff is just as important as fresh strategy.

Mental wellbeing in the workplace has to be implemented from the top down, with leaders making it a priority and NHS managers who are mentally well enough to create the right environment. The role of managers is crucial, because we know there are often extra barriers for healthcare staff when disclosing mental health problems, such as fears about being deemed unfit to practice or feeling like they have to be immune to ill health.

Mind’s Blue Light Programme, supporting the mental health of staff across the emergency services, has shown what is possible with the right investment. By the end of the four year programme, we saw a 64 per cent increase in staff saying their organisation talked openly to them about mental health, a 19 per cent increase in employees saying people with mental health problems were well supported in their workplace, and a 19 per cent increase in staff awareness of support offered by their organisation to improve mental wellbeing.

SOS (Save Our Staff) Call

Our work in emergency departments has also shown how good working conditions inspire loyalty and high performance from staff. We found the right environment can also prevent people developing mental health problems, and support those living with them to thrive. Our conclusion from the one year pilot we delivered within emergency departments was that positively managing and supporting employees’ mental wellbeing meant emergency departments could ensure that staff performed to their potential.

In order to get these figures down, all NHS trusts must put in place preventative measures to keep staff well at work, not just support them when they need to take time off. Having the right workforce, with the right skills, in the right place is central to achieving the NHS long-term plan’s ambition to improve services and take a more joined up approach to healthcare. To do this, staff need to feel supported by their employer.

This means promoting staff wellbeing, tackling the work-related causes of mental health problems and offering support to employees who are struggling with their mental health. NHS staff are vital and can make a real difference to the experiences of people accessing help. We have heard enough promises, it’s time that change becomes a reality.