How does the NHS care for its own staff?

With 1.3million people the NHS is the largest employer in Europe and the fifth largest in the world. And given that workforce is often put in high pressure situations, and is responsible for helping to care for the health of England’s population, the NHS has a responsibility to take care of its own staff.

The benefits to the NHS of a healthier workforce are clear: improved patient safety, improved patient experience of care, higher staff retention and reduced costs, through bringing down the estimated £2.4 billion annual cost of sickness absence to the NHS.

But these benefits are not unique to the NHS, and also apply to employers throughout the UK. The cost of sickness absence to the UK economy is estimated at around £22 billion, with individuals’ lost earnings totalling £4 billion. Improvements across customer satisfaction, staff retention and reduced costs are all common benefits to employers when improving their health and wellbeing support to staff.

However, precisely because unlike some other countries we have an NHS, an employer’s role in encouraging health and wellbeing in their workforce can be a blind spot. Although the best employers take action, many others could learn from them and do more.

“But to make this work nationally – to make a real difference to the nation’s health — we need other businesses to join us on this journey”

Within the NHS we established our workplace wellness programme in September 2015 to start providing an improved health and wellbeing offer to our staff. The programme has two areas of focus.

First, we are preventing illness by fostering a change in health and wellbeing culture within hospitals. We are doing this by improving our engagement with staff, pushing it up the leadership agenda and improving the food environment within NHS premises. The NHS is leading the way on introducing a sugar tax, testing how it can be implemented in a way that makes people make healthier choices while starting to remove junk food from forecourts and vending machines.

Second, we are taking action on musculoskeletal conditions and mental health issues, the cause of the majority of absence through illness — not just amongst NHS staff, but with workers across the country. By improving access to physiotherapy and providing mental health training for line managers amongst other measures, we are intervening early to address developing problems before they result in serious detriment to the health and wellbeing of staff and, by extension, absence.

Our staff spend a large portion of their time at work; we can harness this time to positively impact their overall health, wellbeing and happiness. By fostering a culture that improves the chances of people remaining well at work, whilst also providing better early intervention support the NHS is starting to get its own house in order. But to make this work nationally – to make a real difference to the nation’s health — we need other businesses to join us on this journey.

If you’d like to get in touch to learn more about the NHS Healthy Workforce Programme please email

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