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Keeping fit for purpose

Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool has introduced a popular programme of subsidised fitness classes and wellbeing activities for staff. The cost of the programme has been more than recouped by reducing sickness absence and reliance on agency staff.

Senior nurse Julie McEnerney felt slightly depressed when she saw £30 disappear from her bank account every month for a gym membership she never used.

‘I lived 20 minutes from the gym and didn’t have a car,’ she says. ‘And when I got home from work, it was hard to think about going out again – especially in the winter. Money was leaving my account every month but I didn’t go to the gym.’

Fast forward five years, however, and Ms McEnerney is fitter, healthier and no longer wasting money on a gym membership. Thanks to a health and wellbeing programme run by her employers at the Walton Centre NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool she has become an enthusiastic participant in fitness classes ranging from Zumba to circuit training.

What’s more, the trust’s weight management programme has helped her to lose three stones. It has also helped her to control her blood pressure.

‘I’m lucky enough to work Monday to Friday, nine to five,’ says Ms McEnerney, whose role as practice educator involves supporting newly qualified nurses.

‘The good thing about the classes is that they start just after work, so it’s a matter of finishing my shift and running over to the workplace gym. I’m meeting people I know, and have the opportunity to network with people from other departments.’

The trust was relying on agency staff, which is costly. Something had to be doneJean Blevin

The Walton Centre is a specialist trust dedicated to neurology, neurosurgery, spinal and pain management services. The work can be demanding, both physically and emotionally, so perhaps it’s not surprising that staff sickness and absence rates were running at around 7% some years ago – well above the national NHS average.

‘The trust was relying on agency staff, which is costly,’ says staff health and wellbeing lead Jean Blevin. ‘Something had to be done.’

Working in partnership with health service unions, the Walton Centre began to develop a staff health and wellbeing policy that quickly took hold among the 1,300-strong workforce. Since the policy was implemented, staff sickness rates have fallen to around the national average of just over 4%.

‘We started small,’ explains Ms Blevin, who is staff side lead at the trust. ‘The first thing was a Zumba class, and then we started offering circuit training and a weight management programme. The idea was to give staff plenty of options.’

Subsidised classes

Since then, the range of activities on offer has grown. The staff football club and netball team are particularly popular, she says, as is the running group. Other options include pilates and aromatherapy massage – all offered at subsidised cost.

‘People can pop in and out. At any one time, around 20% of staff are taking part in at least one activity,’ she adds.

As well as the classes, the trust runs seminars and other activities focused on health and wellbeing.

Employees pay around £3 for an exercise class, while a full-body aromatherapy massage costs £15. The running club is free. The cost of the initiative has been more than covered by improvements in sickness absence, says Ms Blevin. And she believes that the trust’s focus on staff health and wellbeing – which also includes a good occupational health scheme, involving, for example, fast access to physiotherapy to help people stay in work – makes staff feel valued.

Director of nursing Hayley Citrine agrees, and says that the trust recently had its best results to date in the national inpatient survey results. The staff survey was positive too.

‘Some of our nurses are leading the way nationally and even internationally in their specialist areas of expertise. They go the extra mile to help patients and it is right that as an organisation we show them how much we value them,’ says Ms Citrine.

‘Importantly, staff report that it has improved their physical and mental flexibility and their resilience during challenging times in the NHS.’

The staff netball team has proved very popular

Picture credit: Alan Edwards

As for Ms McEnerney, she even likes to attend classes when she is on leave or working at another site. ‘I plan how I can jump on a bus to get back for a class,’ she laughs.

‘I’m a real advocate for the programme and am always encouraging other people to take part. I think its making a real difference’.

The national picture

In July, the Health and Social Care Information Centre published the latest figures on sickness absence for the NHS in England, showing that between January and March 2015, the average rate was 4.44%, up slightly on the same period last year (hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB17903).

Nursing, midwifery and health visitors had the lowest average at 1.22%. Ambulance workers were the highest at 6.78%.

Although the annual rate in England fell each year from 2009/10 (4.4%) to 2011/12 (4.16%), it is now creeping up again, to 4.25% for 2014/15.

In July 2011, the Department of Health (DH) launched Healthy Staff, Better Care for Patients (nhshealthatwork.co.uk/dh-strategy.asp), proposing that occupational health services should play a bigger role in health services. It also published an improvement framework (tinyurl.com/npafhj4). This followed a review commissioned by the DH in 2009, which estimated that £555 million in productivity improvements could be realised by reducing NHS staff sickness by a third.

A report from the Royal College of Physicians published in March found that while 700,000 NHS staff were obese, just 28 per cent of trusts in England said they had a plan in place to tackle obesity. Just under two thirds (65%) of trusts said they had a staff health and wellbeing plan in place (rcplondon.ac.uk/press-releases/less-two-thirds-trusts-have-plan-place-nhs-staff-health-and-wellbeing).

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