Kingston hospital in south London offers staff yoga classes to improve their wellbeing.

 Kingston hospital in south London offers staff yoga classes to improve their wellbeing. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Soaring stress levels have led to a workforce crisis and alarming numbers of doctors and nurses are quitting their jobs at the NHS.

But hospitals are trying to reverse the trend by giving staff yoga sessions, free massages, bacon rolls, and their birthday as an extra day off in an attempt to relieve the pressures of caring for patients.

Growing numbers of trusts are laying on mindfulness classes, physiotherapy to relieve pains, and advice on good sleeping habits as ways of improving their personnel’s wellbeing.

Kingston hospital in London has hired a physiotherapist specifically to treat staff suffering from sore necks, backs and shoulders from the rigours of handling patients. A “mind/body practitioner” also teaches them yoga to improve their mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing.

Every week scores of staff attend yoga sessions, pilates class or mind/body relaxation groups. Additionally, a “staff support chaplain”, who is a trained therapist, provides free pastoral care and counselling to those suffering with stress, anxiety or depression, whether caused by work or their personal or family life.

Kelvin Cheatle, the trust’s director of workforce, said it enlisted the trio’s help after its staff survey in 2015 showed that they “consistently felt stressed and under pressure and that the organisation wasn’t doing enough to help them. We implemented a health and wellbeing strategy to support staff through every type of their wellbeing – physical, mental, financial and family health.”

Cheatle added that last year’s staff survey shows “these initiatives have made a huge difference to staff health and wellbeing. The majority say they feel the trust is taking positive action on this issue and would recommend the organisation as a good place to work.”

The University Hospitals Plymouth trust in Devon is using different tactics. When staff at its Derriford hospital cannot take their meal breaks because they are under serious pressure, they receive free refreshments to help give them a breather – including bacon rolls.

Over 1,000 staff have taken up discounted memberships of the Derriford Centre for Health and Wellbeing, a gym and leisure centre in the grounds of the Derriford, the city’s only acute hospital. And, with junior doctors in short supply, it now rewards those who come for four to six-month rotations of what it admits will be “an often intense and challenging work environment” with “welcome bags” which include pens, water bottles, teabags, sweets, sachets of hot chocolate, advice on how to get enough sleep when working nightshifts and a card thanking them for joining.

Physiotherapist Lauren Castledine-Wolfe treats a staff member at Kingston hospital in south London.
 Physiotherapist Lauren Castledine-Wolfe treats a staff member at Kingston hospital in south London. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Sheffield Teaching Hospitals Trust is helping staff have a better work-life balance through different flexible working schemes, including term-time-only working, annualised hours and part-time jobs. About 150 personnel have all school holidays off, for example. It also offers staff free access to the mindfulness app Headspace, water bottles for those who visit patients at home, health checks for those over 40, counselling through a 24/7 advice line and physiotherapy. Such schemes are paying off because the trust now retains 91% of its staff, one of the best rates in the NHS in England.

One medium-sized trust now allows staff to take their birthday off as an extra day’s holiday. “Staff had many ideas how to recognise good organisational performance but this was the one they really came forward with. We agreed it as a personal ‘thank you’ to every member of staff”, said the trust’s chief executive, who asked for it not to be identified.

“They take it on or as close to their birthday as possible, and it’s on top of their annual leave. The costs are far outweighed by the benefits. It’s not automatic – it depends on our performance – but we’ve done it three out of the last four years”.

In the first scheme of its kind, the trust that runs Telford hospital in Shropshire is refurbishing six four-bedroom houses in its grounds, alongside Telford & Wrekin Council, so it can offer free housing to 24 junior doctors as part of its efforts to persuade them to come and work there.

“As everyone knows, it’s tough working within the NHS at the moment. But we are delivering top-quality, free accommodation that gives us an edge when people are deciding where to make their career”, said Ben Reid, chair of the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital trust. Increased interest from final-year medical students suggests the initiative may help boost its supply of trainee medics.

“The NHS can be a brilliant place to work, but there’s no denying that a lot of staff have to contend with intolerable pressures in their efforts to deliver the best possible care for patients”, said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts.

“Their work carries great responsibility, demanding great skill, stamina, patience and compassion, often in an environment where resources are severely stretched. This can take a physical and mental toll, leading to burnout, sleep loss or demoralisation.”

She welcomes trusts’ efforts to improve their workforce’s morale and wellbeing. But chronic understaffing, the widespread problem of rota gaps and the growing numbers of personnel quitting means they have to raise their game on nurturing those who provide care.

The most recent NHS staff survey, published last month, showed that 40% said they had felt unwell as a result of work-related stress in the previous year – the highest number for five years. Staff health and wellbeing overall had declined and 30% often think about quitting, it also found. And official figures show that the health service in England has over 100,000 unfilled vacancies.