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Burnt-out GPs to get new occupational health services from next year

Part of plans unveiled by NHS chief to boost health and wellbeing of all staff

Caroline White

Wednesday, 02 September 2015

GPs suffering from stress and burnout will be able to access a new nationally specified occupational health service from next year, under plans to boost the heath of staff across the NHS, unveiled today by NHS chief Simon Stevens at the NHS Innovation Expo conference.

The plans form part of a major drive by NHS England to meet the commitment made in the NHS Five Year Forward View to ensure that the NHS sets a national example in the support it offers its own staff to stay healthy, while cutting down on sickness absence and agency staff costs across the service.

Public Health England estimates that staff sick leave costs the NHS £2.4bn a year—equivalent to around £1 in every £40 of the total budget. This figure doesn’t take account of agency staff or treatment costs.

Today’s new £5 million initiative has three pillars, including a major drive to improve staff heath; the establishment of nationally specified occupational health services for GPs; and national action to ensure that catering contractors and PFI providers raise their standards of food and nutrition.

“NHS staff have some of the most critical but demanding jobs in the country. When it comes to supporting the health of our own workforce, frankly the NHS needs to put its own house in order,” commented Mr Stevens.

“At a time when arguably the biggest operational challenge facing hospitals is converting overspends on temporary agency staff into attractive flexible permanent posts, creating healthy and supportive workplaces is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must-do,” he said.

“And at a time when the pressures on GPs have never been greater, we need to extend the local practitioner health programmes that have been shown to help GPs stay healthy and get back to work when sick,” he continued.

Ten local NHS trusts and NHS England itself will lead implementation of the overall drive to improve staff health by agreeing to provide the NHS health check at work for NHS staff aged 40 or over, while testing new models of health assessments and health-related incentives; and providing specific capacity for staff to access physiotherapy and mental health talking therapies, as well as smoking cessation and weight management services.

They will also ensure that patients and staff are always offered healthy options in restaurants, cafes and vending machines on site, and they will organise local physical activities, such as yoga or Zumba classes, or competitive sports teams, and offer the Cycle to Work scheme.

They will also fully implement Public Health England’s Workplace Wellbeing Charter assessment and accreditation process, and NICE guidelines on workplace health.

A Board level director and senior clinician will lead on the programme, while training will be given to all line managers to help them support their staff’s health and wellbeing.

The intention is to roll out the programme to all NHS employers over the next five years, targeting those with the highest rates of sickness absence and recruitment and retention pressures in 2016-17.

For GPs, NHS England will develop a national service specification for occupational health service procurement regionally from April next year. This will be supported by specialist services for doctors, modelled on those which have already been successfully developed in certain parts of the country.

In pursuit of the third pillar, NHS England will meet the major hospital catering vendors and PFI contractors to discuss how to ensure that the NHS leads the way in offering healthy food to its staff and patients.

“Fatigue, stress —and eventually burnout— among family doctors is increasing, to the detriment of their own health, and this could have a devastating impact on the care that our patients receive,” said Dr Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of GPs.

“Better access for GPs to occupational health services is a positive step forward —one that the College has called for—and one that we will be pleased to work with NHS England and others to develop as a priority. It truly is a case of healthier doctors providing safer patient care and being better for patients,” she said.

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England, commented: “The public sector should be the standard bearer for workforce health. The positive steps the NHS is taking to systematically improve the health and wellbeing of its workforce will have trickle down benefits for the health and wellbeing of the wider population.” 

He added: “The money saved on reducing staff sickness can be spent on services for the public, and the healthier habits picked up by public sector employees can be passed on to the people they serve.”

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