Patients are to be routinely asked about getting back to work by NHS staff in a bid to aid their recovery.
As the link between working and improved mental and physical health has become clearer, staff will now be trained to broach the subject as soon as treatment starts.
Swansea Bay University Health Board occupational therapist Jess Powell, pictured above, will be training colleagues from doctors to health care support workers as she has just become Wales’ first Health and Work Champion.
She said discussing how people can return to either paid or voluntary work at the beginning of their recovery gives them something to aim towards.
Helping patients to stay in work even though they are unwell can also prevent further deterioration in their condition.
Jess said: “It’s getting the professionals to understand that you don’t have to wait until people are well to have those conversations. It’s also about helping patients to understand that the ability to work does not require them to be 100 per cent healthy.”
In her role within mental health at the Orchard Centre in Swansea, Jess and her team routinely support patients back into work, volunteering or even education as a stepping stone to a paid job.
She has seen how the structure, self-belief and social networks that come from these meaningful occupations have tangible benefits for patients’ mental and physical health.
Now Jess, who completed a special training course run by the Royal College of Occupational Therapists and Public Health England in London, wants to see this replicated across all departments.
Left: Work has been proven to have a positive effect on mental and physical health. Pic posed by models
Under her new role as a Health and Work Champion, which she is undertaking on a voluntary basis on top of her normal work, she will be delivering hour-long training sessions to colleagues.
She will be advising them on how to raise the subject of work with patients and where to signpost service users for further support, whether that be JobCentre Plus or to their current employer’s occupational health department, which can help with making the reasonable adjustments needed in order for them to return to work.
She said: “Sometimes staff don’t ask the questions around work because they don’t know the answers. This is about changing the culture of the health board so that people put work at the forefront.”
This will support the work currently being undertaken by Vanessa Trinder, vocational lead within the mental health delivery unit, whose role is dedicated to addressing the vocational needs of people accessing mental health services and supporting staff to address these needs.
The first training session takes place next month. Doctors, nurses, social workers and health care support workers will be among the first to take part. But Jess has emphasised that it is suitable “for anyone and everyone”.
She said one important aspect of the course, which is fully CPD (Continuing Professional Development) accredited, is teaching staff the principle of the five Rs:
England already has dozens of Health and Work Champions who have trained hundreds of NHS staff.
A report by Public Health England and the Royal College of Occupational Therapists stated health staff who had undertaken the training reported improved knowledge of the benefits of staying in or returning to work after illness or injury for patients and service users, as well as increased confidence when it came to asking people about work-related issues.
In 2006 a Department of Work and Pensions commissioned report called Is Work Good For Your Health and Wellbeing? evaluated scientific studies and found there is strong evidence to show that work is generally good for physical and mental health and wellbeing.
The report also found that worklessness is associated with poorer physical and mental health and wellbeing. It added that work can be therapeutic and can reverse the adverse health effects of unemployment.
Jess said: “I’ll be measuring the outcomes of these courses to see if they are making a difference.
“Then hopefully in the future there’ll be scope for recruiting more Health and Work Champions in Wales.”
Vanessa said: “It is a positive and significant step forward to have a member of our team complete accredited training as a health and work champion and I look forward to working with Jess to make work central to wellbeing support, in line with evidence and Government directives.”