What happens to all the nurse well-being support and the wobble rooms now?

COVID-19: Not all employers will be keeping staff hubs open and parking free

COVID-19: Not all employers will be keeping staff hubs open and parking free

  • Free goodies from the public and businesses have come and gone – what’s important for nurses now is ongoing support
  • Despite the popularity of staff hubs and wobble rooms throughout the pandemic, reports suggest not all organisations will retain them
  • How some workplaces are ensuring supportive initiatives are here to stay, and the benefits this brings for their staff
Public support for the NHS throughout the pandemic has been high Picture: iStock​​​​​

During the COVID-19 pandemic, NHS staff have been inundated with gestures of goodwill from employers and the public.

Employers opened ‘wobble rooms’ to give stressed staff time out, while pop-up supermarkets appeared in workplaces. Businesses and the public donated shopping vouchers, breakdown cover and more food than the workforce could eat.

As the free goodies for NHS staff end, what measures will remain?

The government in England intervened in the vexed question of hospital parking by announcing it would subsidise free spaces for staff. There were even gifts of golf days, dog harnesses and artisan gin.

But now, as the first phase of the pandemic passes, the free goodies are inevitably disappearing. But other measures – the car parking (its day are numbered, the government has announced), and workplace well-being facilities – will be missed.

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Maintaining the wider emotional support for nurses

Justin Walford

RCN Emergency Care Association member Justin Walford says the perks were welcome during the difficult peak months of the pandemic.

His workplace, the Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, received so much food that they had to start donating to local groups for vulnerable people.

‘We had too much – more than we needed. There were lots of gifts from lots of different places,’ he says.

‘A local stationer’s even donated pens, which sounds like a silly thing, but it meant we had plenty of pens so they did not need to be taken out of the red zones dedicated to COVID-19 patients.’

Mr Walford says what is important now is the wider well-being support that is offered to nurses, especially since patients with COVID-19 continue to be treated.

‘Working in COVID-19 areas takes a huge physical and emotional toll. Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) is uncomfortable and hot. The shifts are draining,’ he says.

Access to well-being support varies between workplaces

Mr Walford stressed it is important to recognise that staff will need continued emotional support and the ability to take time out.

But he says the availability of such support varies from place to place.

NHS England and NHS Improvement have secured free access to a number of well-being apps, including Headspace, which promotes mindfulness, and a sleep improvement app run by Big Health.

‘It may seem like basic things – saying thank you, making sure staff have food and drinks and recognising the work and that they have put themselves at risk – but they are actually fundamental’

Becky Malby, professor of health systems innovation, London South Bank University

Many of the more progressive employers have staff well-being leads who have been running online sessions for staff, providing access to psychological support if needed.

So-called ‘wobble rooms’ can allow staff space to take a break Picture: Neil O’Connor

Taking time out in the wobble room

‘Wobble rooms’ have become a popular way to provide staff with a space to take time out.

Some of these are simply side rooms where staff can have a quiet moment, but in other workplaces they have been decked out with calming music, oil diffusers, stress toys and refreshments.

In a number of hospitals, these spaces have been used to hold daily briefings with staff that focus specifically on their well-being.

Despite the popularity of such facilities, which many nurses might consider a basic benefit rather than a discretionary perk, not every organisation is retaining them.

Why our wobble room is here to stay

Nurse leaders at Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust set up a wobble room for staff at the acute medical unit (AMU) at the end of March.

The room had been a disused office, but it is now a permanent space for the nursing and medical teams where they can relax, grab a coffee and have some time to themselves away from the clinical area.

The room is furnished with a sofa, cushions, throws and mugs – all donated items. There is also a computer, where staff can access the trust website’s health and well-being resources.

Matron Sam Jarvis, centre, with colleagues in the trust’s acute medical unit staff wobble room
Picture: Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust

A space to reflect can help build team morale

There is a ‘wall of thanks’, featuring pictures and cards sent by patients, and a ‘wall of hope’, where staff can write reflections.

A ‘wall of funnies and feelings’ has been set up too, as well as a suggestions box if staff want to raise issues anonymously. Managers put these suggestions on the agenda for discussion at daily briefings.

Matron Sam Jarvis says the wobble room has been a great help during what has been a difficult period.

‘We were hit quite badly. During the peak, the intensity of patients admitted into AMU intensified and the complex issues staff were having to deal with were immense.’

She says the wobble room is here to stay and has inspired other areas of the trust to set up similar facilities.

‘It has helped to create a happy team and a happy team works well together. Better relationships have developed across the nursing and medical staff.’

Keeping the staff well-being initiatives going

Psychologists and therapists have offered their time free to provide counselling and emotional support to staff who are struggling, to complement the services offered by employers.

Danny Mortimer

Frontline 19, set up at the start of the pandemic, has around 3,000 therapists on its books.

NHS Employers chief executive Danny Mortimersays he has been ‘humbled’ by the support put in place.

He says there is a recognition that it is natural the offers from local businesses and communities come to an end, adding that many parts of the NHS have been redirecting some of the gifts to charities and organisations helping those most affected by the pandemic.

But he acknowledges that health and well-being support does need to stay and says employers are looking to make this happen and ensure the initiatives are sustained for the longer term.

‘Look after staff and they will look after patients’

Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust introduced a series of perks last year for staff, including free parking and tea and coffee.

When the pandemic began, the trust quickly assessed what more it could do to help staff.

Deputy chief nurse Sam Donohue says: ‘The culture we have is “look after staff well and they will look after patients well”. That’s why we have taken the steps we have. They may be small, but they show staff how we value them.’

Ms Donohue says one of the first measures taken in the pandemic was to put together food hampers, containing things like soups, porridge and toiletries, because of the concern about the impact of schools closing and the loss of free school meals.

The trust also paid for rooms at a local hotel for staff who could not return home because of distance or household members were shielding.

And to help feed them, the opening hours of the staff canteen were extended, with free meals provided from 6pm. Everyone working late was eligible.

Meanwhile, an Amazon wish-list was put together for the local community to purchase gifts for staff and patients.

Ms Donohue says: ‘We put things on it like toiletries for staff and books and activities for patients. At first people were making donations, but this meant we could make sure it was targeted at the items people most needed.’

The business case for a bigger staff hub

The trust is now planning to continue with the Amazon wish list – and another initiative that will stay is the staff hub that was created behind the restaurant.

‘We realised staff needed a space they could go to have a little down time, where they could unwind or take a moment out. We put food and drinks in there. The feedback from staff was so positive we’ve now put a business case together to create a bigger hub with a garden.’

The policy on leave has also been liberalised, allowing staff to sell back leave or carry extra over, as many had not used up their allocation because of the pandemic.

‘At one point we had 800 staff who were off ill or isolating,’ says Ms Donohue. ‘Everyone [that was left] went that extra mile. There was a real camaraderie.’

Nurses in the community are too easily overlooked

But while hospitals have been active in supporting nurses, it may be a different story for those in the community.

Queen's Nursing Institute chief executive Crystal Oldman says district nurses have all too often had to carry on without the support or recognition their hospital colleagues have had.

‘When did ministers ever refer to district nurses at daily briefings? That affects the morale of nurses who have continued working throughout’

Crystal Oldman, chief executive, Queen’s Nursing Institute

Crystal Oldman

She says the work and challenges they face have been largely ignored in the national narrative.

‘When did ministers ever refer to them at daily briefings? That affects the morale of nurses who have continued working throughout.

‘They too have faced challenges getting PPE and had to contend with patients being discharged from hospital and large rises in the number of people dying at home.

‘They have had to cope with this often working remotely on their own.’

The challenge now for managers is how to retain good practice

Back to Better cover

London South Bank University professor of health systems innovation Becky Malby agrees there is a wide variation in the quality of support and approaches taken by employers.

But she believes the NHS can learn a lot from what has worked well in these past few months.

She has helped produce a report – 10 Leaps Forward – Innovation in the Pandemic – which looks at how leadership, digital technologies and support for staff have changed for the better during the pandemic.

She says one of the important messages from nurses who were interviewed for the report was that they felt appreciated by the public and management.

‘Whether it was the clapping, the food donations or bosses becoming more visible and thanking staff, it was clear how much it was noticed and appreciated.

‘It may seem like basic things – saying thank you, making sure they have food and drinks and recognising the work that is being put in and the fact that staff have put themselves at risk – but they are actually fundamental.’

She says the challenge for managers will be making sure they retain some of the good practice, post-pandemic.

‘The problem is that in the NHS it is often hard for managers to prioritise these kind of things – they have horrendous demands placed on them. Quite a lot of it is unnecessary, but it can be difficult for managers to prioritise the things they are not directly judged on.

‘They should – these things are phenomenally important.’

Find out more

10 Leaps Forward – Innovation in the Pandemic

NHS England NHS staff offers page

Nick Evans is a health journalist