Evidence-based approaches to workforce wellbeing

This page details evidence-based approaches to workforce wellbeing and provides a useful basis for reviewing your approach.

16 February 2024

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to improving the wellbeing of your workforce, the evidence base on the most effective initiatives and approaches is constantly evolving and can provide a useful basis for reviewing your approach and making decisions as we know how important it is to retain our valued NHS workforce. 

The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan and the NHS People Promise explore how having a positive staff experience and a rounded support offer are vital to encouraging staff to remain in the workplace. The information provided below can support you in making informed choices to look after our NHS colleagues.

The evidence base can be useful across your health and wellbeing strategy, including to:

  • build your business case and gain buy-in for change 
  • inform decision making and help focus your approach, including funding decisions 
  • guide your approach to evaluation and reviewing your strategy.

The workplace health and wellbeing evidence base is constantly growing and evolving – do you know about a key study we haven’t included here? Let us know by emailing us.

Overview of the health and wellbeing evidence base

NHS Employers commissioned the Institute of Employment Studies to undertake a rapid evidence review of the evidence base of health and wellbeing interventions used in healthcare and their implications for wellbeing outcomes. The key learning generated by this review is summarised below. You can find out more in the full Health and Wellbeing Interventions Rapid Evidence Review, published in October 2020.

  • There is no single one-size-fits-all solution for workforce wellbeing. Interventions with good take-up and which led to positive wellbeing outcomes were those where healthcare staff had options as to which interventions they could engage with and suited their wellbeing needs.
  • The quality and extent of the evidence base is variable and needs more attention. Organisations often use a broad range of interventions, focusing on both mental and physical wellbeing, treatment-based and prevention focused interventions. The extent to which these interventions are robustly evaluated is variable. Organisations should pay great attention to evaluating their approaches, including both wellbeing outcomes and process evaluation, and may find it useful to partner with research organisations to do this robustly. 
  • A whole-system approach to wellbeing should be considered alongside interventions. This includes a focus on the whole employment experience, including element such as workload, autonomy, employee voice and management processes.

Our eight elements of positive staff experience web page details the eight elements that are essential for creating, implementing and evaluating an effective staff experience strategy.

The below documents and reports have been influential in shaping thinking and approaches in health and wellbeing across the NHS. These may help you to develop and review your health and wellbeing approach.

Why workforce wellbeing matters

The evidence base for why workforce wellbeing matters is well established. You might want to refer to the learning from these reports, studies and evidence to build your case for making changes in your organisation: 

Health and wellbeing in the NHS workforce

There has been a plethora of research, studies and reports outlining the state of health and wellbeing for the NHS workforce, and making recommendations for change and improvement. Here are three seminal reports exploring wellbeing in the NHS:

  • NHS Health Education England NHS staff and learners' mental wellbeing report, February 2019 - This report, led by Commission Chair, Sir Kenneth Pearson, reinforces the importance of promoting and supporting the wellbeing of NHS staff and those learning in NHS settings. The report examines at what the NHS are doing currently, where there is excellence and where the NHS can aspire to excellence. Take a look at our dedicated web page which can help support you to implement some of the recommendations from this report. 
  • The Boorman Review, November 2009 (PDF) - The final report of the independent NHS Health & Well-being Review was published on 23 November 2009. The report reiterates the case for change, and provides a comprehensive set of recommendations for improvement in provision of health and wellbeing across the NHS.
  • Thriving at work - The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health of employers,  October 2017 Following the request from the Prime Minister at the beginning of 2017, Paul Farmer and Dennis Stevenson undertook an independent review into how employers can better support the mental health of all people currently in employment including those with mental health problems or poor wellbeing to remain in and thrive through work. This extensive report includes recommendations employers can adopt regardless of their workplace type or size. Our dedicated web page can help support you to implement some of the recommendations from the report. 
  • Five-year workplace wellness intervention in the NHS, June 2013, shows improvements in health behaviours, reductions in sickness absence and improvements in job satisfaction and organisational commitment were observed following five years of a workplace wellness intervention for NHS employees. These findings suggest that health-promoting programmes should be embedded within NHS infrastructure.
  • The annual NHS Staff Survey is one of the largest workforce surveys in the world and is carried out every year to improve staff experiences across the NHS. 

Initiatives in practice

There are a broad range of preventative and treatment-based physical and mental health initiatives, although there is no single best approach. 

Read section four of the IES report: Health and Wellbeing Interventions in Healthcare: A rapid evidence to find evidence specifically relating to interventions from the NHS. 

Below we’ve also curated a set of research studies around common health and wellbeing themes to inform and guide your approach.

  • Research by the Institute for Employment Studies in 2020 evidenced the benefits of workplace counselling, including: reduced sickness absence, reduced presenteeism and improving retention. Read the study in full to find out more, including how workplace counselling can be evaluated and adapted for even greater impact. 

    • The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) has published a summary of their research showing that an intervention to encourage office workers to stand and move reduced their sitting time after one year.
    • The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) has also produced eight research findings addressing key risk factors for poor health in later life and helping you stay healthy as you age.  Some offer reassurance, for example, about the value of exercise or weight management programmes. Others highlight differences in risk between different groups of people. All studies had important and actionable findings.  
    • The Work Foundation carried out a systematic literature review examining the breadth of evidence on workplace-based lifestyle interventions, including weight-loss, physical activity, smoking and alcohol. 
    • The BMJ's Effectiveness of the Stand More AT (SMArT) Work intervention: cluster randomised controlled trial paper shows how successfully reducing sitting time over the short, medium and longer term resulted in positive changes in work related and psychological health. 
    • The Device-measured physical activity and cardiometabolic health: the Prospective Physical Activity, Sitting, and Sleep (ProPASS) consortium study, supported by the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and published in the European Heart Journal, is the first to assess how different movement patterns throughout the 24-hour day are linked to heart health. Replacing sitting with as little as a few minutes of moderate exercise a day tangibly improves heart health, according to research from UCL and the University of Sydney. 
    • The BMJ's blog Could physical activity counteract the risk of cardiovascular disease risk associated with abdominal obesity? provides a summary of a recently published prospective cohort study exploring joint associations of device-measured physical activity and abdominal obesity with incident cardiovascular disease. 
  • What is a good job?
    The What Works Centre for Wellbeing have summarised the range and quality of evidence demonstrating a link between high quality roles and better workforce wellbeing. Read the full report to find out more about the evidence relating to each of these elements of job design:

    • job security
    • social connections
    • training and development
    • role clarity
    • employee voice and workplace culture.


    Research Proves Your Brain Needs Breaks, Microsoft, Worklab, 2021
    This study of brain wave activity in 2021 confirmed what many people sense from experience, back-to-back virtual meetings are stressful.  The research also points to a simple remedy—short breaks.  The research showed three main takeaways.

    1. Breaks between meetings allow the brain to “reset,” reducing a cumulative build-up of stress across meetings.
    2. Back-to-back meetings can decrease your ability to focus and engage.
    3. Transitioning between meetings can be a source of high stress.

    The research also includes strategies/tips for making breaks successful—and beating meeting fatigue

  • Using quality improvement to deliver a systematic organisational approach to enjoying work in healthcare shares learning from East London NHS Foundation Trust’s programme which supported their colleagues to apply their quality improvement skills to try and understand what matters to their staff and what contributes to good days at work. The programme started in the trust in 2017 with 86 teams, clinical and non-clinical, from the organisation, and is based on the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s (IHI) joy in work framework which provides an evidence-based approach to tackling the complex issue of staff experience using improvement science.

    Enjoying Work Collaborative 38 teams from 16 healthcare organisations in England and Wales took part in this quality improvement (QI) programme in 2021-22 to understand and improve the experience, wellbeing and joy of staff. The results showed an improvement across the three outcome measures: 

    • A 50 per cent improvement in the percentage of people who have enjoyed being at work frequently
    • A 41 per cent improvement in the percentage of people who are experiencing no symptoms of burnout 
    • An 38 per cent improvement in the percentage of people who are extremely likely to recommend their team as a place to work
  • Mental health

    Mental Health First Aid

    The evidence base on the effectiveness of Mental Health First Aid in organisations is mixed and conflicting. 

  • A realist informed mixed-methods evaluation of Schwartz Center Rounds® in England, 2018 - this report highlights that Schwartz Rounds offer a safe, reflective space for staff to share stories with their peers about their work and its impact on them. Interestingly, the report shows that there was no change in staff engagement scores of participants, but poor psychological wellbeing reduced significantly. Take a look at the report in more detail for the full findings.

  • Workplace Health Expert Committee (WHEC) is a scientific and medical expert committee whose purpose is to consider the evidence linking workplace hazards to ill health.  WHEC's reports cover evidence reviews and position papers giving their independent expert opinion on key topics for workplace health.

  • Organisational culture

    Evidence from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing highlights the importance of organisational culture in achieving improved wellbeing outcomes. Read the report What works for health and wellbeing in the workplace? to find out more.

    People management

    Research undertaken by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and commissioned by CMP and the Healthcare People Management Association (HPMA) provides detailed analysis of the position of state of employment relations in the NHS across the UK in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and into a 'new normal' for people management.

    Effective measures

    The Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) published their Organisational interventions to support staff wellbeing: Case studies and learnings from the NHS report.  It looks at the most effective measures to support staff wellbeing in the NHS.  The report was carried out by researchers working across Birkbeck, University of London, University of Nottingham and University of Sheffield, and includes current literature reviews, practitioner interviews, and in-depth case studies on this topic. 

    Read our summary of the Society of Occupational Medicine's report on effective interventions to support staff wellbeing in the NHS.