Cary Cooper: HR must stay focused on NHS wellbeing

Let’s dispel a myth about the recent NHS strikes; the willingness to protest doesn’t contradict the absolute commitment of thousands of nurses, doctors and support staff.

The 32-year gap since the last action makes that clear enough, before you start delving into the research that proves it conclusively.

More than 96% of staff are committed to achieving the goals of their job, according to 15 years of Robertson Cooper wellbeing and performance data collected from a range of NHS trusts. It’s that strong sense of purpose that is the greatest asset of the NHS, and a potential risk if it means we assume staff can work in any conditions and shoulder every demand.

The attitudes and wellbeing of staff are not potential blockers to NHS reform and performance, they’re the key to it, but the challenge to maintain a healthy and happy workforce is great. 

Ask most NHS staff and it’s the strong sense of purpose, a desire to help people and their own control over that role that is the real driver of wellbeing, and of performance, whether that’s the direct provision of care or supporting it.

The strength of that shared mission can leave staff reluctant to speak out about their wellbeing or even to prioritise it. After all, their job is to look after others. But, just like many people who work in high pressure environments, it can take only a small change in the work setting or home life pressures to have an impact. 

The NHS is a microcosm of the wider issue – stigma surrounding the discussion of mental wellbeing at work – which thankfully many in HR departments and beyond are working to break.

New technology is helping too. Big White Wall is a service working with many NHS trusts, delivering support online for mental wellbeing. Dr Simon Wilson, Big White Wall’s clinical director, says: "the online space offers a fantastic opportunity to help people who might otherwise never reach out, and joining a community of peers can help to normalise the experience of distress”. 

Normalise should perhaps be the mantra when it comes to staff wellbeing and performance in the health service. Writing in the Guardian earlier this year, Ben Moss made the point that those factors we’d instinctively recognise as influencing wellbeing – workload, relationships, change, insecurity and resources – together account for 37% of the disparity between staff with high and low levels of wellbeing. With the right health strategy these factors aren’t intractable.

On 12 November 2014, HR directors from across the NHS will meet at the Good Day at Work Conference to debate a modern approach to staff wellbeing, hearing from those with direct experience of how it impacts care. Keeping that conversation going is key, whether the context is the recent strike, ongoing change or the NHS being voted the world’s best healthcare system. Sustaining that position will depend on it.

Cary Cooper is distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. He was recently voted the top UK thinker in the HR Most Influential 2014 rankings