• Alex Davies
  • 8 September 2015

NHS’ £5m wellbeing initiative to cut £2.4bn sickness bill

Plans have been set out to reduce the NHS’ annual £2.4bn sickness bill, dealing primarily with the two largest causes of staff absence – mental health issues and musculoskeletal problems. The wellbeing initiative will include measures such as serving healthier food, promoting physical activity, reducing stress and providing health checks, and will target the 1.3 million health service workers employed by the NHS across the UK.

One of the key initiatives will be to ‘challenge and support’ catering contractors to raise the standards of food and nutrition across NHS sites.

NHS England Chief Executive, Simon Stevens, said:

“It's time for PFI contractors and catering firms to ‘smell the coffee' - ditch junk food from hospitals and serve up affordable and healthy options instead. Staff, patients and visitors alike will all benefit."

The three ‘pillars’ of the Wellbeing Initiative are as follows:

Pillar One - Leading NHS employers to spearhead a comprehensive initiative to boost NHS staff health at work

Ten local NHS organisations and NHS England itself, collectively employing around 55,000 staff, have agreed to lead the implementation of this new programme. All participating organisations will commit to six key actions:

  1. Providing the NHS health check at work for NHS staff aged 40 or over – so that staff are able to access it more easily, and receive local signposting and support, while testing new models of health assessments and health-related incentives.
  2. Providing specific capacity for staff to access physiotherapy and mental health talking therapies, as well as smoking cessation and weight management services.
  3. Ensuring patients and staff are always offered healthy options in restaurants, cafes and vending machines on site, and actively promoting healthier options through targeted promotions.
  4. Establishing and promoting a local physical activity ‘offer’ to staff, such as running yoga classes, Zumba classes, or competitive sports teams, and promoting healthy travel to work by offering the Cycle to Work scheme.
  5. Fully implementing Public Health England’s Workplace Wellbeing Charter assessment and accreditation process, fully implementing the NICE guidelines on workplace health.
  6. Identifying a Board level director lead and senior clinician to champion this work, while providing training to all line managers to help them support their staff’s health and wellbeing.


Pillar Two – New nationally-specified occupational health service for GPs suffering from burnout and stress

Increasing pressures in general practice are one of the reasons why GPs leave the profession. Occupational health services are available across the whole of England but with varying levels of follow-up services depending on local commissioning arrangements by CCGs.

NHS England will therefore develop a national service specification for procurement regionally from 1 April 2016. It will be supported by specialist services for doctors building on those which have been successfully developed in areas such as:

  • The London Practitioner Health Programme, funded by CCGs in and around London;
  • House Concern, a specialist service in the Northern region;
  • Somerset Clinician Support Service, and;
  • MedNet, a service provided by South London and Maudsley NHS Trust and the Tavistock.


Pillar Three – National action to challenge and support catering contractors and PFI providers to raise the standards of food and nutrition

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.

There is much that can be done within existing contracts to provide healthier choices for staff, and some Trusts have already shown what is possible by promoting healthy options (e.g. including fruit rather than confectionary in discounted meal deals) and working to reshape their overall offer.

NHS England will stress that it is unacceptable for health sector organisations to be contracting with caterers who mainly sell foods that don’t meet nutritional standards, or actively promote unhealthy eating. Officials will also push for organisations to ensure that they are providing easily understandable nutritional information and appropriate portion sizes, building on the Government Food Buying Standards to ensure a healthy and sustainable food and drink offer. Food and drink offered in vending machines should meet existing nutritional standards, so that staff have a choice of healthy options, including when working at evenings and weekends.

Stevens said:

"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. 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. 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.”