Hospitals are helping staff recover from the Covid pandemic by giving them extra holiday, bonuses of up to £100, much better food while on duty – and even drama and poetry sessions.

NHS trusts across England are also hiring psychologists, expanding childcare and overhauling rest areas as part of a drive to reward staff for their efforts and improve their working lives.

The moves by hospitals to show their staff how much they appreciate them come amid the growing row over the government’s plan to restrict the NHS England workforce to a pay rise of just 1%, which critics have called “an insult” and “a slap in the face”.

Some hospitals, such as those in Stoke-on-Trent, Oxford and Southampton, have awarded staff an extra day’s paid leave in 2021-22, often to be taken on or around their birthday. The Oxford trust has called it a “recognition day” and Southampton an “extra day for you to do the things you love”.

North Tees and Hartlepool trust gave all staff a £100 payment as part of its effort to thank them for dealing with the intense demands of the Covid emergency, Northumbria trust’s workforce got £50 and those at North Middlesex University hospital in London received a £25 shopping voucher paid for by Tottenham Hotspur football club. Others have given frontline personnel free hoodies, water bottles and pin badges.

Work is under way in many places to make it easier for staff, especially those on nightshift, to access healthy food during their breaks and not just rely on biscuits and Pot Noodles.

For example, Whittington hospital in north London plans to use money from its charity to introduce “smart vending machines” and “smart fridges” full of nutritious snacks and dishes that workers can buy 24/7 and heat up if necessary in a microwave, in what is believed to be a first in the NHS.

It has also installed a number of what it calls “igloos” – plastic blob-like blow-up spaces – in an area outside its staff canteen so more personnel can have socially distanced meal breaks. “They’re like the ones you can eat an expensive dinner in at restaurants on London’s South Bank,” said one member of staff.

An ‘igloo’ set up at Whittington hospital

‘Igloos’ have been set up at Whittington hospital so more staff can have socially distanced meal breaks. Photograph: Whittington hospital

About 20 wards at Oxford’s John Radcliffe and Churchill hospitals now receive boxes of fresh fruit as well as dried fruit such as dates, which is enough to last them for a few days. “This has been really popular with staff and is shared among day and night teams,” said Hazel Murray, the head of programme at the Oxford Hospitals Charity.

Staff in many hospitals have received a “thank you box” of confectionery, foodstuffs or wellbeing products such as moisturiser. At Northumbria the boxes included produce donated by local firms such as tea and shortbread, as well as soap, candles and prints of Bamburgh and Tynemouth.

Milton Keynes University hospital has given staff an extra 24 hours holiday next year and is letting them make some extra money by selling unused leave from this year back to the trust or carry more leave over into 2021-22 to increase time off after restrictions on people’s lives are eased.

Prof Joe Harrison, the Milton Keynes trust’s chief executive, said: “Looking after our staff, who might spend 50 years working in the NHS in emotionally and physically demanding jobs, is a moral duty.”

Staff were given free tea, coffee, biscuits, instant meals as well as free parking in 2019. But the trust plans to bring in heavily subsidised hot meals in the canteen and to greatly expand flexible, affordable childcare – another recurring difficulty for NHS staff, who often have irregular or antisocial working patterns. It hopes the latter will tackle high childcare costs and stop parents among its workforce, especially women, from quitting.

Imperial College healthcare trust in London is spending £1.7m of its charity’s funds on boosting staff wellbeing. It is renovating 200 break rooms, kitchens, changing rooms and showers and introducing three pilot “rest nests” in its intensive care unit, stroke unit and pharmacy area, where staff can relax. Similarly, the 20 “respite spaces” in Oxford’s hospitals will include noise-cancelling headphones so personnel can escape the noise and intensity of wards and operating theatres.

Imperial, which employed 14,000 staff and runs five hospitals, is also one of many trusts that are increasing psychological support for staff, many of whom are exhausted and burned-out after the pandemic’s rigours and horrors. It is doubling its roster of counsellors, for instance.

The arts are helping some staff decompress. The Whittington brought in the Wake the Beast theatre company to put on a session of experimental drama, in which staff found it therapeutic to interact with the actors to channel their feelings about dealing with Covid-19. At Imperial, the poet-in-residence, Keith Jarrett, is helping staff write their own poems in creative writing workshops. There are plans for an anthology and display of the finished works.

In Oxford, small teams of workers are taking part in virtual sessions of origami, music and poetry during their breaks. “This session is the vaccine for our daily stress.” said one staff member. “It’s the only time in the week when we all stop talking about Covid,” said another.

Saffron Cordery, the deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health service trusts in England, said an array of initiatives was under way to improve working environments in hospitals because “trust leaders have put staff recovery and looking after the long-term health and wellbeing of staff as their top priority as we come out of the pandemic”.

This content first appear on the guardian

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