NHS must speed up complaints handling to improve staff wellbeing

The NHS needs to undertake a 'root and branch' examination of how it handles complaints because the current system adversely impacts on the mental wellbeing of staff, Health Education England has said.

(Photo: iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages)
(Photo: iStock.com/monkeybusinessimages)

The recommendation was one of 33 made by Health Education England’s NHS Staff and Learners’ Mental Wellbeing Commission in a wide-ranging report that outlined changes the NHS could make to improve the health and wellbeing of staff.

The commission said the NHS should specifically look at how complaint handling could be speeded up. It warned that the current system allows complaints to ‘hang over clinical staff for weeks, months or in some cases for years’, which inevitably impacts on staff’s mental health.

‘Many of the staff, and in many cases the person complained against and caught in the vortex of an investigation, will ultimately be found to have no case to answer,’ the report added. ‘In many cases the complaint system was probably the wrong route when a patient simply wanted to be heard, to suggest a change in the way they have been cared for or to hear an explanation about why what happened was normal.‘

The commission recommended a national charter should be set up, involving patient groups, clinical professionals, representative bodies and regulators, to examine the way that reflections, complaints and comments from the public are handled.

Improving wellbeing

The report also addressed the issue of suicide among healthcare professionals, pointing out that there was ‘concerning evidence that suggests some NHS professional groups are at heightened risk of death by suicide’.

The commission said that further research was needed to understand the incidence and causes of excessive burnout, self-harm, and suicide in healthcare professionals, as well as interventions that could target those at most risk. However, it recommended that suicide risk awareness and prevention should be incorporated into all healthcare undergraduate and postgraduate curricula and that all NHS organisations should have processes for examining the death by suicide of any member of staff.

Other recommendations included:

  • Every NHS organisation should have an NHS workforce wellbeing guardian, which could work at locality level in primary care.
  • All NHS staff should have access to a national NHS 'Samaritans-style' service, which would provide complete emotional support to NHS staff and those learning in the health service.
  • All NHS organisations should appoint a workplace wellbeing leader to work with and report to the workforce wellbeing guardian.
  • Every trainee should have access to a personal wellbeing tutor. A wellbeing ‘check-in’ should be provided to all postgraduate trainees (within two weeks) of starting the placement and on each placement. The personal wellbeing tutor must have sufficient dedicated, protected time in their job plan, which is audited and reported.

The report also recommended that all NHS staff should have self-referral access to a practitioner psychological treatment service and that any additional barriers that may stop staff accessing such a service should be addressed. GPs in England already have access to the GP Health Service, which was set up October 2016 following publication of the GP Forward View. In November the service revealed that it was supporting 1,363 GPs facing burnout, stress, addiction or other mental health issues.

The DHSC said that the report's recommendations would be considered as part of its forthcoming workforce implementation plan.

Much-needed support

BMA mental health policy lead, Dr Andrew Molodynski, said: ‘We know that doctors' mental health and wellbeing has been adversely affected by the increasing demands of their work and this is true also for medical students who are dealing with stress, fatigue and exposure to traumatic clinical situations, very often without adequate support on hand.

‘While these measures will go a long way to providing much-needed support for NHS workers who are struggling with their mental health and overall wellbeing, more must be done to address the wider pressures on the system, such as underfunding, workforce shortages and rising patient demand, so we can reduce the number needing to seek help in the first place.’

A report from the Society of Occupational Medicine at the end of last year suggested that 'between 30 and 40%' of UK doctors experiencing burnout and work-related stress. The report warned that GPs were 'more vulnerable to burnout (particularly emotional exhaustion), work-related stress and common mental health problems than doctors in most other specialities'.

A GPonline survey this week found that more than 40% of GPs had cut the number of sessions that they work in the past year to improve their work/life balance.

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