Health trust supporting its workers

Restrictions may be easing, but it’s vital that support for health and care staff continues in the face of persisting pressures from the pandemic.

Thursday, 3rd June 2021, 8:00 am
From left, health coach Rory Harrison, staff wellbeing lead Kylie Murrell, health coach Keith Miller, principal clinical psychologist Sarah Markham and occupational health nurse advisor Susan Armstrong.

The clapping may be a thing of the past and many of us are looking forward to a return to some kind of normality, but it is vital that the impact on healthcare workers is not underestimated or forgotten after such a gruelling and unprecedented year.

At Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust which runs hospitals and community services in Northumberland and North Tyneside, a wide range of initiatives, from tokens of gratitude to specialised psychological support, have been provided, building on the comprehensive health and wellbeing package which was already in place.

Sir James Mackey, the Trust’s chief executive, said: “It has been very obvious to us for many years that the NHS is portrayed as a machine, but it’s actually a complex organism and all about the people within it, and who they look after.

"Great staff experience leads to great patient experience and that has been a driver for our strategy for many years.

“This has been a long-term journey for us in Northumbria, but the pandemic has certainly highlighted these issues and placed some huge burdens on all NHS staff and we’re acutely aware of this.

"The culture, values and commitments that we’ve made to staff are the glue that holds us together and we frequently see how these measures to go the extra mile for our staff are reflected in things like their wellbeing, sickness rates and what they tell us in staff surveys.

“We made a decision early in the spread of Covid-19 that there should not be a trade-off between managing the epidemic and our commitment to high-quality, compassionate support for our staff.”

New initiatives introduced during the pandemic ranged from the early response of providing fruit and vegetable grab bags to pick up on the way home after a busy shift to the development of mini markets for those hard-to-get groceries when the shelves in supermarkets were bare.

At Christmas, all 11,500 staff were sent a thank-you box containing gifts from local companies, which also helped to support the local economy as all the products were bought from suppliers in Northumberland or Tyneside.

Wellbeing spaces were developed to provide a quiet, comfortable and uplifting environment for tired staff in need of a break away from the ward and attention is now turning to building walking tracks and outdoor spaces of tranquillity, so that staff can enjoy a little bit of nature.

Some of these were funded and supported via Northumbria Healthcare’s Bright charity, which received grants from the national Covid-19 appeal while others were paid for by the Trust itself and delivered by its dedicated wellbeing team.

Communication was also key, with a weekly letter and video to staff from the Trust’s chief executive explaining what was happening at the top and weekly survey Corona Voice enabling colleagues to raise issues, provide information, ask questions or just say how they were feeling at the time.

During the first lockdown, a new website was launched to ensure all of the resources for staff were available in one place, while packs were also developed to help leaders guide their teams through those challenging times.

Finally, financial difficulties were also considered and the Trust’s partnership with the Northumberland Community Bank – which has been in place for more than two years and has more than 850 staff members signed up – has enabled staff to take out loans as needed during the crisis.

Sir James added: “This has been a really difficult time for everyone working in the NHS, but we’ve used real-time communications with our staff to hear what they were saying and understand how we can support them through this unprecedented period.

“People have been acknowledged constantly for their contributions whatever part of the organisation they were working in.

“Our Trust also committed to understanding the loneliness that staff experienced when they were shielding or working from home. We set up wellbeing phone calls to staff at home, and bypassed emails to send letters to staff at home explaining how we could help and what support was available.”

The wellbeing team and occupational health service already played an integral role within the organisation, but there were enhancements delivered in this arena as well, including the introduction of psychological first-aid resources and sleep workshops. Meanwhile, the staff physiotherapy team continued to offer its service throughout the pandemic.

The psychology and counselling team has provided structured support groups where staff could come together to reflect on their experiences and gain peer support in a safe space.

Staff nurse Abbey Jackson, who works on critical care, said: “I don’t think this will easily leave anyone and it will stay with us. There hasn’t really been any let-up as we now need to focus on getting back on track where there’s been disruption, so there hasn’t been time to recover.”

Consultant clinical psychologist Teresa Jennings said: “Support within teams will be essential to facilitate recovery. We need to train and support our team leaders to ensure this happens.

“We need to help our staff process and make sense of what they have been through. There is still uncertainty about the future and what may still need to be faced in months to come.

“Everyone affected needs an opportunity to be listened to and to know that what they are feeling is normal. For those who are struggling, we need to make sure they have early access to the right kind of support.”

Sir James concluded: “Supporting staff in as many different ways as possible was important to us before the pandemic and will remain so afterwards, because we’ve seen the impact it has not just on our people but also the knock-on effect of the services they then go on to provide. By being a good employer, we see also the positive impact on our local communities, the care we provide to patients, and the recruitment and retention of NHS staff.

“Covid-19 has brought this into stark focus and we need to not lose sight of that as we start to recover and rebuild from the year we have just had.”