The wellbeing of NHS staff and learners – the Mental Wellbeing Commission report and relevance in Higher Education

In February 2019, the Mental Wellbeing Commission published a set of recommendations for the NHS concerning the wellbeing of NHS staff and learners (The Executive Summary can be viewed here and the Full Report here). The recommendations for the report recognise the importance of supporting the wellbeing of learners within an NHS setting, and staff members generally.

What were the key themes outlined in the report?

Twelve themes emerged from panel discussions with staff working within the NHS, bereaved families (of those who had ended their life during their employment with the NHS), with organisations demonstrating best practice, and via site visits. Themes that emerged covered preparing for transitions (through school, to further/higher education and beyond), the need for self-care/caring for the carers, taking a break, and the role of technology amongst others.

What did the report recommend?

The commission published 33 recommendations for local NHS trusts to adopt. The primary recommendation focused on the creation of a workforce “Wellbeing Guardian”, who would be responsible for the wellbeing and mental health of their staff at a board-level, in every NHS organisation, from a national to local level.

Other recommendations within the report included the creation of a Workplace Wellbeing Leader, supporting transitions, as well as quick access referral pathways for staff (e.g., for psychological therapy). The commission recognised that more could be done to support wellbeing for staff, and this could include further provision of peer support, as well as safe psychologically safe and confidential spaces.

What is the relevance within Higher Education?

At present, the mental health and wellbeing of students is of focus within Higher Education and a variety of initiatives have been developed (e.g., UKRI Mental Health Research Networks; UUK StepChange Framework), or are in development (e.g., University Mental Health Charter), which are designed to improve this.

However, little attention is being paid to the staff members in Higher Education who may be supporting students, despite public calls for staff members to be more informed and to support the early identification and prevention of mental health conditions in students (e.g., Vitae recommendations for Postgraduate Researcher Supervisors).  The Commissions statement of “who cares for the people who care for the nation’s health” (p.17, Executive Summary), becomes one of “who cares for staff members who support the mental health and wellbeing needs of students?” and the general query of “how can staff be best supported” when applied within a Higher Education context.

The wellbeing and mental health needs of staff members in Higher Education should not be ignored (e.g., “More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before”). Levels of burnout are higher than the general working population and comparable to healthcare workers. In addition, staff members in Higher Education settings are reported to have poorer levels of wellbeing compared to types of employment such as health and social work, in areas of work demands and change management amongst others (RAND, 2018). Indeed, a recent Government review (Thriving at Work (2017)) tasked employers with adopting mental health core standards. National and local initiatives are needed to support the mental health and wellbeing of staff members, alongside improving offers of student support.

Blog post written by Dr Rachel Moss (Twitter: @DrRMoss), Research Associated on the PGR Wellbeing project at the University of Portsmouth (School of Education and Sociology).