16th November 2020

The NHSBSA Covid-19 Wellbeing Response

Mobilisation of homeworking, provision of equipment and remote Display Screen Equipment support by the Safety, Health and Environment Team’.

The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) is an Arm’s Length Body (ALB) of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).  We manage over £35 billion of NHS spend annually delivering a range of national services to NHS organisations, NHS contractors, patients and the public. Our purpose is to be a catalyst for better health and our vision is to be the delivery partner of choice for the NHS. We have around 3,500 colleagues based in ten sites around the country.

How did lockdown affect what you do?

Lockdown meant that many of our colleagues had to be rapidly enabled to work from home for the first time, making coordination initially difficult. Many colleague’s workloads also increased because of the pandemic and the services that we quickly stood up to support the government and NHS response. Lockdown also affected the wellbeing and mental health support we provided for our colleagues, although they were already a business priority because of the organisation’s people focus.

What challenges did you face?

The suddenness of lockdown meant that it was initially very challenging to support our people in new ways. We quickly had to put in place measures that were reactive to the unprecedented situation, and it was only through trial and error, and listening to the issues that were concerning our colleagues that we were able to gradually develop wellbeing initiatives to adequately support them.

Many colleagues workloads increased during the pandemic and many were also grappling with the challenges of home schooling or other care giving. Another challenge was the diversity in the roles and locations of our various internal audiences. Some colleagues roles couldn’t be performed from home which meant that although many colleagues were now feeling isolated at home, others had to remain in the offices delivering critical services, which could be worrying and isolating in itself. It was difficult to design wellbeing interventions which could meet all of these diverse needs.


What changes did you bring in to support colleague wellbeing? 

From the outset and throughout the pandemic, colleague Wellbeing has been highlighted as a priority by the Chief Executive and Leadership Team.

We had run many initiatives prior to lockdown to support colleague wellbeing, though these were mainly face-to-face, limited to individual offices and didn’t include all our colleagues.  When lockdown started, we decided that colleague wellbeing had to be our priority and realised that online support was the best way forward.

Although some of us had used Microsoft Teams prior to the pandemic for meetings, it hadn’t until that point been used much for less formal, cross-organisational engagement events. We appointed ‘Teams Champions’ who were trained up by a full-time Microsoft 365 employee in how to effectively use the platform. To further promote our support offerings, we made the most of our dedicated Wellbeing & Inclusion Network members to champion our initiatives and promote the message in a way that was tailored to different business areas.

Reaching out to colleagues to support their physical and mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic has been our key priority as part of our initial and ongoing response. As part of this response we have delivered the following programmes of work:

Mobilisation of homeworking, provision of equipment and remote Display Screen Equipment support by the Safety, Health and Environment Team

As part of our immediate response to the pandemic and ongoing efforts to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19, our organisational approach has been to mobilise a mandatory home working strategy with all colleagues enabled to work from home unless performing a business critical role that cannot be carried out remotely or where a safeguarding issue has been raised around mental health or domestic abuse. As part of this strategy, our Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) Team have worked closely with our Technical and Estates teams to ensure that colleagues have been provided with the technology and equipment to enable working safely from home, with a keen focus on maintaining our existing high level of support around the prevention of the development of musculoskeletal conditions as a result of poor posture. This has included ensuring colleagues have access to the correct workplace equipment such as ergonomic desks, seating and other peripheral aids. For those individuals that were struggling with posture or back pain as a result of changes to their working environment, remote Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Workstation assessments have been carried out by the SHE Team.

Supporting physical wellbeing of office-based colleagues

Whilst the majority of our workforce are now home based and remote working has been effectively mobilised, for those roles that cannot be undertaken from home, a number of support measures have been introduced to ensure that the physical health of those working at operational sites are protected from unnecessary risk. These measures include:

  • Development of a robust COVID-19 Vulnerability Risk Assessment Process to support colleagues in or returning to the workplace. In conjunction with our Occupational Health provider and led by our SHE Team, colleagues have been clinically assessed to determine their ‘COVID age’ and assigned a RAG status. This is then evaluated by a panel of NHSBSA Subject Matter Experts in respect of their job role and proposed place of work ensuring that all aspects are fully explored before an individual can safely return to the workplace. This process is also used to support those that are struggling with mental health concerns. Colleagues who receive a ‘red’ status are deemed too high risk to return to the office and are supported to remain at home.
  • Our SHE and Estates Teams have worked collaboratively to ensure all of our operational buildings have been certified COVID-19 Secure and that all controls to reduce the spread of infection have been implemented and maintained throughout the pandemic. Additional precautionary measures have also been taken to protect colleagues by maintaining our building capacity at 30% based on a spacing of 2 metre social distancing in addition to the recommended guideline of 1 metre.
  • For colleagues that are required to work from our premises, face coverings have been provided free of charge. Access to free car parking has also been provided to reduce colleague exposure to the additional risks posed by travelling to site on public transport.

Wellbeing and mental health support

During the initial stages of the pandemic, our People Team (HR, Learning & Organisation Development and Wellbeing & Inclusion) co-created a series of support guides so that colleagues could readily access information that would support their mental and physical health. This has included:

  • Health and Wellbeing Guide outlining ways in which colleagues can support their own wellbeing during this time and where to access support if they’re struggling. This includes information about our Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Network, Occupational Health service, external support organisations, workplace adjustments, domestic abuse support and how to access several Wellbeing Apps to support mental health that were made free for all NHS colleagues.
  • Managing ourselves, managing ourselves and designing effective meetings which outlines ways colleagues can adapt to their new environment including tips to stay mentally and physically well by taking adequate rest breaks throughout the day, building routine, setting clear boundaries to maintain a work/life balance and planning in time to take exercise and lunch.
  • Manager and Colleague Guides to Bereavement – although something we hoped to never have to enact, we were acutely aware that we may lose a colleague as a result of the pandemic or that colleagues may be affected by the loss of a loved one during this time. To ensure that our managers were prepared both emotionally and practically to deal with this heart breaking scenario, we created two guides which outline the practical steps that can be taken and the emotional support available should our people ever be faced with this situation.

We regularly used ‘All Colleague’ communication tools such as emails and FAQ’s issued by our Executive Director of People and Corporate Services to signpost to this wellbeing support. We also developed a new Wellbeing and Inclusion intranet site outlining the support available, including a specific COVID-19 Wellbeing site. Our Digital Team rapidly mobilised the transition from our old operating system to Office 365 which has allowed the development of a new Wellbeing and Inclusion (W&I) web page and the ability to use internal social media platform Yammer to easily communicate and promote key wellbeing messages.

Throughout this time, we continued to run our already established Wellbeing and Inclusion campaign timeline – our communication plan which covers key national and global awareness events aimed at improving wellbeing literacy and encouraging colleague self-care. This has been adapted to reflect our changing world and emerging wellbeing issues as a consequence of COVID-19, with a particular focus on mental health support and physical health such as National Mental Health Awareness Week in May and World Suicide Prevention Day in September.

We also carried out a Wellbeing Survey to understand how effective the provision of wellbeing support for all colleagues during COVID-19 had been, with 61% of colleagues across the NHSBSA providing feedback. The survey was well promoted through communications from our Leadership Team, Senior Team briefings, email reminders and Q&A sessions with our Chief Executive. Results were reviewed by a Wellbeing Survey working group (Communications, Wellbeing & Inclusion, HR and Insights representatives). Results were used to shape our on-going response and increase understanding of our colleagues needs during this time, generating a series of actions to improve colleague wellbeing.

Loss of our usual social spaces and ability to connect with one another over the last six months has resulted in feelings of isolation and loneliness for our colleagues. In order to address this and provide opportunities to connect and share, we developed a People Events Calendar – a variety of online forums hosted via Teams which outlines our business offering to support colleagues physical and mental wellbeing since the start of the pandemic including the delivery of:

Weekly 1 hour Wellbeing Awareness sessions hosted by our Wellbeing and Inclusion Team and other colleagues from across the NHSBSA. These sessions have been designed to raise colleague and manager awareness on key wellbeing issues that have arisen as a consequence of the pandemic and include topics such as:

o    MIND Wellness Action Planning for both colleagues and managers

o    Understanding and managing stress

o    Overview of wellbeing apps to support mental and physical health

o    Domestic abuse awareness for managers

o    Mood and gut health

o    Overview of NHSBSA mental health support

o    Nutrition during lockdown

Twice weekly ‘WeCare Cafés’ that provide an informal and ‘safe space’ setting for colleagues to connect, share their experiences of ‘lockdown’ such as shielding or home schooling children and which are themed based on colleague feedback and health and wellbeing trends. This initiative has also allowed the establishment of dedicated safe conversation spaces for LGBT+ and BAME colleagues, to link up and talk through common issues with one another. The cafes are hosted by members of our Wellbeing and Inclusion Networks and colleagues are encouraged to drop in, have a cuppa and catch up with colleagues from across the business.

We also run a series of Wellbeing Taster Sessions hosted by external wellbeing experts. After a successful pilot, these sessions are now part of our regular offering where colleagues can attend twice weekly and monthly sessions free of charge and include:

o    Mindfulness to support mental wellbeing, reduce stress and increase focus

o    Yoga and desk-based Pilates to help improve posture that may have been affected by our new working practices

o    Sleep Hygiene and Mind Management workshops which focus on improving sleep quality and managing stress and anxiety.

We have also rolled out our Annual free flu vaccination scheme to all eligible colleagues to further reduce the burden on frontline NHS colleagues and ensure our vulnerable colleagues are protected from the additional risk of contracting influenza during the winter months. This year we changed our mode of delivery from onsite clinics to an e-voucher scheme which could be redeemed at local pharmacies and encouraged take up by granting colleagues time to attend during working hours.

How has your wellbeing support changed during the pandemic?

While we were initially completely reactive to the pandemic and lockdown, we’ve gradually become more proactive, and able to adapt better to changing circumstances as the pandemic has developed. Feedback from our colleagues has shown us that many people are struggling with the same kinds of issues, which has prompted us to run a number of sessions on how to deal with them. This has included problems with sleeping, keeping fit and switching off from work when working at home. Mindfulness has proved particularly successful in helping our colleagues deal with the stresses they’ve felt during lockdown, with sessions organised in and out of work time, and included as part of Corporate Service Directorate meetings.

Over time, we’ve noticed that colleagues have become much more open talking about their anxieties, with our Mental Health First Aid Network, in particular, being used more, and an increase in conversations around suicide and safeguarding issues. Managers are now also having weekly wellbeing conversations with their colleagues, ‘checking in’ to make sure they are okay and creating individual Wellness Action Plans. We are also planning to run substance misuse training, knowing that drugs and alcohol can be a coping mechanism during difficult times for some people. This, incidentally, is very much focused on supporting colleagues, rather than judging or disciplining them. In the near future, managers will also be trained to carry out Stress Risk Assessments, again to be able to properly identify and support individuals when things become difficult.

What were the benefits of the changes you introduced?

Since moving to using an online platform to host our various discussion groups and events, we’ve been able to connect with colleagues across the whole business, which has supported us to have more collaboration as an organisation. It has also meant that business units, which may previously not have had the budget or resources to host their own wellbeing events, can now be involved. 

Prior to the pandemic, we would often invite guest speakers to present at some of our events, but time and geography meant that most of our colleagues would not get to benefit from their wisdom – now that’s not the case, anyone can ‘tune’ in or watch when convenient as we record many sessions now.

Teams has also proven a great platform for delivering some of our training. Previously, many members of colleagues would have had to travel up to our head office in Newcastle to take part in some of our courses, but moving the training online has saved them time and travelling costs, encouraging more people to sign up. Teams also affords colleagues greater anonymity than turning up to a meeting space where people are more readily identifiable.

We have also seen a marked increase in use of our company’s social media, Yammer, hosted through our intranet. This has helped us promote our wellbeing offers and very importantly, has given colleagues the opportunity to join up with each other through shared interests. Our ‘gaming’ group, especially, has proven very popular and led to organisation-wide tournaments of certain computer games!

Is there anything that hasn’t worked so well? What did you learn from the process?

When we first launched our virtual cafes, there was no particular theme or structure to them, so conversation and interest in them soon dried up. In addition to using our Mental Health First Aiders to support conversations, we’ve also learnt to plan the discussion themes better, for instance using World Mental Health Day as an opportunity to talk more about current anxieties and ways of dealing with them. We’ve also had a drop-in film club, which worked well, and have plans to organise a session around Stoptober, to encourage people to stop smoking, while also considering their mental health.

How will your experiences during the pandemic change what you do when it is over?

The pandemic will definitely lead to much more flexible working in the future, as we now have the technology, systems and mindset for working in different ways. We’re also much more aware of how people are feeling and the different experiences they’ve had – some, for instance, have expressed anxiety over returning to the office as lockdown has eased, so home-working for most will continue into 2021, if not longer. The systems and wellbeing offers we brought in during lockdown have helped bring people together more, and effectively supported them whether they are working at home or in the office, so there is no reason why these shouldn’t continue.

This article was brought together by Melanie Maughan, The Wellbeing Manager at The NHS Business Services Authority. www.nhsbsa.nhs.uk