Who’s there to help when the blue lights are flashing for ambulance staff themselves?

We recently came across a tender that had been put out by Health Education England ‘promoting wellbeing for UK NHS Ambulance Personnel’. It called for bids from interested parties to provide employee research services to try and uncover the causes of sickness absence rates amongst ambulance crews and 999 telephone operators. Currently these are about 25% higher than across the rest of the NHS – which already has the highest rates of any sector in the UK!


The tender prescribed the services they were looking for:

  • An overview analysis of existing data with regard to the rising and disparate rates of sickness across the 10 different regional ambulance services. Mostly, it suggested, linked to the stress of a job that seems to get more and more physically and mentally demanding and quoting increasing suicide rates as a worrying indicator.
  • Some focus groups, where staff could outline the pressures of their job and whether they felt supported with the right elements in place to help them cope.
  • Finally, a ‘brief’ all-staff survey to ask for opinions on the themes previously identified and how these might be addressed.
employee experience - ambulance staff

The budget for the study was £180,000 over an 18-month period. Now forgive me for being critical, but why on earth would such a cash-strapped organisation as the NHS want to spend such a large amount of money and wait a year and a half for the kind of conventional employee research which does nothing to address the root causes of sickness absence (only its symptoms)? This predictable approach will not help to reduce sickness absence and is unable to trial and test alternative approaches to genuinely understand the underlying issues.

Indeed, I would suggest that the Association of Ambulance Chief Executives already knows what this employee research is going to find. Namely that staff feel overworked and under-supported, that the pressure they face just doing their jobs leads to the kind of mental and physical health problems that result in short, medium and long-term absence from work and limits productivity. I’m really not sure how asking those in the firing line (in some cases literally) for their opinions on existing and potential future support is going to help.

A new approach to employee research

What’s needed is a far more objective, psycho-physiological study of what actually happens to those whose primary role is saving lives. How can we really know the specific moments in their day when things get too much; when events occur beyond their ability to cope, their individual resilience is simply not enough, and the stress becomes acute and contributes to a myriad of other physical ailments?

What we need is some science. If we could biometrically monitor a representative cross-section of emergency service workers, both at work and when they are at home, we would be able to create a benchmark against which to compare any interventions designed to improve things. And, by carrying out reviews of the data from these studies with the individuals concerned, we can understand the potential causes of these problems – work and lifestyle (almost certainly linked to sleep, nutrition and diet, hydration, relaxation and exercise). We can then encourage people to take action themselves to help to enhance their resilience as well as working with the organisation to reduce excessive stress.

Through an aggregation of both the physiological data and an analysis of the psychological feedback on their working and home lives, this kind of investigation can lead to the identification of the critical factors affecting the physical and mental wellbeing of ambulance and call centre staff and how they might be addressed. These solutions (both individual, organisational and environmental) can be piloted, trialed and rigorously tested using the same methodology to ensure they are refined to cost-effectively deliver real improvement in the resilience of staff, reducing sickness absence, staff turnover and increasing productivity and staff satisfaction.

This employee research can also be used to measure the impact of tactical interventions, the kind of double-whammy that provides real value for money when budgets are tight and, excuse the pun, gets right to the heart of the problem by testing actual solutions at the same time.

Such a study could be carried out on a representative sample of the ambulance service’s 27,000 staff for less than the cost of the proposed tender and be completed in around half the time. Saving money and saving lives, in terms of both its staff and its patients, is surely exactly what our ambulance service should be about and it is only by understanding the employee experience in scientific detail that we can hope to achieve this. I would urge those writing these kind of tenders in future to seek out innovative and scientific approaches to solve the problem, rather than simply ticking a box and defaulting to the same old research methods that have served us so poorly, in terms of objective output, in the past.

To review a new way of scientifically understanding employee experience through physiological and psychological measurement, please read further about how to use biometrics to measure the employee experience. Or contact us to discuss your specific requirements.