Carbon-cutting seen as a 'burden and a distraction' by NHS staff

Sustainability champions call for cross-party support to cut emissions

The NHS has been charged with reducing carbon emissions by 34% by 2020

NHS staff are being urged to stop seeing carbon reduction as a ‘burden and a distraction’ and instead accept it as an ‘opportunity for multiple wins’.

During a recent webcast organised by The Guardian , key NHS sustainability champions outlined the challenges facing the health service in cutting its CO2 emissions by 34% over the next eight years in line with the Climate Change Act .

The NHS too often sees issues like sustainability as a burden and a distraction, whereas some hospitals and health professionals see them as opportunities to exploit with multiple wins

The NHS currently spends around £600m a year on energy bills and is responsible for 3% of the UK’s total emissions, with most coming from procurement (65%) and building energy costs (19%).

But, while trusts across the country have drawn up carbon reduction plans and many have embraced energy-efficient technologies such as combined heat and power (CHP) and low-energy lighting, a large number are finding the main challenge is getting staff to understand the importance of cutting energy use at a time when their pensions and jobs are at risk and budgets are being cut.

David Pencheon, director of the NHS Sustainable Development Unit, said: “Too many of us in the NHS see sustainability as just one more thing to do, like equality and diversity used to be considered, forgetting that not only does taking action on sustainability save money, but it also improves health, thus reducing the burden of preventable disease both now and in the future.

In reality we find staff have little interest in carbon reduction until we find a link to a direct impact on them

“In short, the NHS too often sees issues like sustainability as a burden and a distraction, whereas some hospitals and health professionals see them as opportunities to exploit with multiple wins.”

Communication is vital to changing behaviour, he added, with trusts being encouraged to find more innovative ways of reaching and engaging staff at all levels.

Pencheon said: “It can be difficult sometimes to find what different people's ‘entry points’ are: whether it be health, money, public sector example, climate change, duty of care, resilience, or conforming to regulations like CRC. But, if you can get the right one, then engagement is much easier.

We do try our best to put out positive messages, but it is a difficult time for NHS staff and I need to find a way through the worry and concerns about pensions and job cuts and try and encourage people to think about energy saving as a way of normal working life

“We really do need ways of connecting 1.3 million staff with carbon, climate change, and sustainability.”

This is a view supported by NHS carbon reduction managers, who claim staff are put off by technical speak and often cannot see how reducing emissions will directly affect them or their patients.

Trish Marchant, energy and environment manager at Medway NHS Foundation Trust, said: “In reality we find staff have little interest in carbon reduction until we find a link to a direct impact on them. However, we do explain to staff that recycling paper, turning off lights, and keeping windows closed in the winter, actually saves us thousands of pounds, which then go to the wards in one way or another. Is it really extra work, or is it just a change in behaviour much like the way you do things at home now that energy bills are going up?”

Staff at all levels need to understand and accept the importance of actions such as turning off lights and computers if NHS hospitals are to meet tough carbon reduction targets

She added: “I have been chided for being a bit too bland and humourless in my globals to staff and will be getting our communications team to help with our messaging in future. We do try our best to put out positive messages, but it is a difficult time for NHS staff and I need to find a way through the worry and concerns about pensions and job cuts and try and encourage people to think about energy saving as a way of normal working life.”

One NHS worker taking part in the webcast said of the apparent apathy among employees: “It is often hard to see what the benefit to my actual team will be.”

It may only make small impact on larger picture, but getting the communications right for the audience is a relatively easy way of making an instant impact on behaviour

Another participant added: “In my experience the feedback from staff was quite simply that the communications about the impact of their behaviour didn’t relate to them or their patients. It may only make small impact on larger picture, but getting the communications right for the audience is a relatively easy way of making an instant impact on behaviour, albeit maybe only of some people.”

Pencheon supports this view, advising trusts: “In terms of engaging and communicating with staff and patients and public, we need more evidence and messaging such as ‘If every non-essential monitor, light, and radiator were turned off every night in this hospital, we would have the resource to be able to treat/prevent 30 heart attacks a year in this town/city/county’.

“Addenbrooke's Hospital used to have a corporate screen saver of pretty fish swimming, but if you left the PC unattended for over a certain amount of time, when you retuned all the fish would be dead. We need to make it fun as well.”

And Larissa Lockwood, who leads the Carbon Trust’s NHS Carbon Management Programme, added: “To embed a low carbon culture across an organisation you need to engage the whole organisation. A carbon management team with representation from across the organisation is essential, as is senior engagement and leadership and appropriate communication to all. Messages need to be tailored to different audiences and success needs to be communicated as well.”

Offering staff rewards could be one way of changing the way they view the carbon reduction drive, he added.

A carbon management team with representation from across the organisation is essential, as is senior engagement and leadership and appropriate communication to all

“Waste and travel are two important issues, but we do not reward NHS staff who make more sustainable travel decisions, instead paying more travel expenses to people in larger cars,” he said. “We do not charge clinical budgets for the waste produced or, better still, reward clinical teams financially for reducing waste, improving procurement and reducing energy needs.”

The NHS worker welcomed this approach, stating: “It might be nice if we got showed how the stuff that we do will benefit the trust. I manage a medical records team and they go around the whole hospital. If they were told they might have a few more staff if they turned off all of the lights as they go, then we might have a solution.

“We are often told about changing behaviour and I am all for it. A little bit of change never hurt anyone.”

Clinicians will be an important ally in creating a whole-system approach to reducing emissions.

Pencheon said: “Estates people have worked incredibly hard on energy and carbon issues. The next phase is to move it more broadly into areas where more people can see the multiple gains. Clinicians are key!”

Clinicians will be key to spreading the message that embracing sustainability is good for staff and patients

This is already happening at Medway NHS Foundation Trust. Marchant said: “Our latest breakthrough is a board-approved sustainability plan which at last brings the clinical areas in, rather than relying solely on the estates teams to find energy savings.

Estates people have worked incredibly hard on energy and carbon issues. The next phase is to move it more broadly into areas where more people can see the multiple gains. Clinicians are key

“We also encourage cycling at our trust and have installed a secure cycle shelter, which has increased the number of cyclists and we have recently negotiated a reduced rate with Arriva for staff bus travel.”

And a participant from the Royal Free Hospital added: “There is a need to communicate the benefits of energy reduction to staff. We have recently installed two LCD screens in high traffic areas to provide real-time energy use and carbon emissions data to staff. The data is displayed in a non-technical format using pounds saved.”

Rigby concluded: “It is difficult to get the engagement we need from all staff. Of course we are all very busy doing very challenging jobs and caring for patients, so assigning staff with a passion for the environment can help to encourage the right behaviours across the entire organisation.”

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