The NHS has launched a new strategy to raise the profile of its occupational health service, develop and grow a multidisciplinary team, and to move from a reactive to a preventative approach to workplace health.
The Growing occupational health and wellbeing together strategy has been designed with input from OH professionals from the NHS, professional bodies including the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) and the Faculty of Occupational Medicine, and has received support from the government.
It aims to promote early intervention, collaboration and innovation across NHS OH services, and is specifically designed to align with NHS England’s “we are safe and healthy” promise made in its people plan.
The strategy received its soft launch yesterday (20 June) in an online event marking the start of Occupational Health Awareness Week.
John Drew, director of staff experience and engagement at NHS England, said: “[OH has] massively stepped up during a period where’s there’s been a lot of uncertainty about staff wellbeing; there’s been a huge increase in demand on OH teams; and there’s been a reinvention of how you do the work that you do.
“There is no doubt so many people feeling drained and exhausted… [We] need to make sure that there’s a hopeful message about the way ahead – for me, the growing occupational health and wellbeing together strategy is a key part of that message.”
NHS occupational health
Drew said there was a need for OH to move from a reactionary service “doing what we can to help limit the effects of an illness or an accident”, to one that “instills a culture of prevention in the fabric of how our organisations function”.
“You’re a source of information to the organisation on what might need to be done by the board to shift from reactive mode to preventative mode,” he told OH professionals.
Dr Steve Boorman, chair of the Council for Work and Health, said that NHS OH services have suffered from years of under-investment, but the service showed its value by leading the pandemic response.
He said “The NHS is the largest employer in the UK. As such your staff will have the same burden of undiagnosed disease and of under-treated long term conditions that are going to be the challenge of the next phase of this pandemic.
“In order to step up and to continue to deliver, it’s not optional to deliver a [reactive] strategy. Unless you look after your staff, they won’t be there to deliver the patient care that you need to deliver.”
Increasing the visibility of occupational health
Drew said OH teams are often based in a different building or seen to be separate from the organisation, but this strategy has emphasised the need for OH to be seen at the heart of the organisation and as a trusted partner.
“Many of you will be thinking that you’ve been trying to do this for years and the odds have been stacked against [you],” said Drew. “My hope and, what I think I see happening, is that we’re moving towards a point where the odds are stacked in your favour. People are more persuaded that ever before of the importance of caring for our people.”
The overarching vision of the strategy is “improving the health and wellbeing of our people by growing NHS health and wellbeing services and people to be trusted, strategic and integrated partners”.
We need attractive career pathways, credible education and training, and we need to empower our OH and wellbeing leaders and wider workforce to not just rise to the challenge of this strategy, but to really be in the driving seat,” – Dr Adam Turner, NHS England
Dr Adam Turner, improving health and wellbeing lead at NHS England, said this will require NHS OH to move from a transactional function to a transformational function with a voice at board level, and a service that is trusted by all employees and NHS leaders.
“We’re boldly saying that as OH and wellbeing we are a multi-professional family of people caring for others,” said Turner.
“We need a workforce plan that very much speaks to that. We need attractive career pathways, credible education and training, and we need to empower our OH and wellbeing leaders and wider workforce to not just rise to the challenge of this strategy, but to really be in the driving seat.”
This would also involve upskilling managers across all areas the NHS, Turner said. “NHS managers are part of our family and they need some basic level of OH and wellbeing competence. They create the wellbeing culture in their teams and it frees up OH and wellbeing teams to focus on the more complex cases, and having that strategic voice.”
There are four drivers and areas of collaboration under the five-year strategy:
- Growing the strategic identity of OH and wellbeing
- Growing OH and wellbeing services across systems
- Growing OH and wellbeing people
- Growing OH and wellbeing’s impact and evidence-based practice.
Giles Wright, associate director of workfore at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said the trust had raised the profile of its OH services by incorporating large logos on the outside of buildings and collaborating with the University of Cambridge on research projects and data-sharing, and had built trust with senior leaders by increasing flu jab take-up and distributing thousands of reusable water bottles to staff in just three-and-a-half hours.
Wright encouraged OH professionals to speak up with ideas to increase their impact: “You know where your value sits within occupational health, what you can bring to the table and what your expertise lies in, better than anyone else in your organisations.”