General practice nurse Heather Jones is showing how becoming a Parkrun Practice can be nurse-led at her university practice in Sheffield, and can even be a tool for bringing the nursing community together.
When a GP practice signs up to be a Parkrun Practice, it is often a GP who champions the initiative. However, when Sheffield University Health Service (UHS) looked at joining the RCGP-backed campaign last autumn, it was practice nurse Heather Jones who volunteered to take the lead.
Parkrun is a free, volunteer-organised event that takes place at 9am nearly every Saturday at 1,166 parks and open spaces across the country. Anyone can take part and walk, jog or run the set 5km route as well as volunteer or spectate, with no obligation to attend every week or complete the whole route, and while those taking part can record their time, there is no time limit.
In partnership with the RCGP, Parkrun launched the Parkrun Practice initiative in 2018 to raise awareness among GPs and practice staff of Parkrun and encourage them to both take part and signpost patients to local events. 1,500 practices have signed up to be a Parkrun Practice, committing to promoting local events, which can take the form of posters, a presence on the practice website or signposting to patients in consultations. Some practices have gone as far as setting up a local event, but this is not a requirement of signing up.
Promoting wellbeing for patients and staff
Ms Jones, who has been a practice nurse since qualifying four years ago, works as both a practice nurse at Sheffield UHS and a nurse educator for South Yorkshire Primary Care Workforce Training Hub.
‘My thoughts initially were that you can sell something much better if you’ve tried it yourself,’ she explains. So, towards the end of last year, over a series of Saturdays, the team was encouraged to attend the local events the practice had partnered with at Endcliffe and Hillsborough Parks. Employees also attended one of Sheffield’s junior Parkruns, a 2km run for 4-14-year-olds and their families on Sundays.
Sheffield UHS has about 80 members of staff and, so far, six nurses, four GPs and a physiotherapist have taken part or volunteered as a marshal at a Parkrun event, some of whom also brought their children and dogs. ‘In hindsight, the fact we had different people try each week allowed people to speak to colleagues they perhaps did not know very well,’ says Ms Jones.
‘Of course, our ultimate intention for this is to promote physical activity in our patient population, but increasingly I saw the possibility here to benefit staff wellbeing. There is a real danger that staff in general practice spend most of their day desk-bound and isolated, only seeing patients. The main interaction amongst the team can become the electronic tasks we send back and forth about patient care. That is very transactional and the people you work with can come to resemble a list of names on a screen more than individuals in a team.’
Ms Jones’ aim for the team this year is just to keep participation going. ‘I don’t want it to be onerous; I am mindful that family life can make weekends hectic and that time away from work is precious,’ she says.
‘If we can support our partner events with a group of attendees once a quarter and gradually expand the portion of the team who have experienced Parkrun, then I’ll be happy.’
As a reminder, the UHS produced a bespoke calendar with pictures of Parkrun events in Sheffield. ‘Every desk space in the practice has one, I wanted something visual, useful and in people’s eyeline. A calendar seemed an obvious choice,’ says Ms Jones.
Social as well as physical benefits
To raise the profile of Parkrun with patients, promotional videos are played on the waiting room screens and there are posters on display with a QR code linking to the website where individuals can register for a Parkrun barcode. Participants only need to register once, for free, and then can turn up to any event in the UK. This barcode is scanned at the finish which is how timings are recorded.
‘I find most patients have an understanding that we promote physical activity because it reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes. But there is less awareness of the numerous other health benefits it has, like helping people manage stress, lift mood, improve sleep quality, keep bones strong, as well as stimulating vitamin D production. But more than that, physical activity that’s sociable and outdoors can enhance people’s sense of connection to others, community and nature.’
Ms Jones sees a real role for this in student health services: ‘A student can suffer loneliness just as someone older might. I suspect this is often in part homesickness, feeling unconnected to their university city and having less contact with people of other age groups. I’m hoping we can promote Parkrun as a way for students to feel more at home in Sheffield and get beyond that university bubble.’
The next step is working with the University to explore how they can promote Parkrun across the organisation to students, staff, and their families. The practice is hoping to meet with human resources to discuss encouraging staff to get involved having already met with the student volunteering and sports services.
‘Before I took on the project, I must admit I completed 15 Parkruns, but never volunteered,’ explains Ms Jones. ‘I have now marshalled five times for our partner events and truly appreciate the time and effort the core organising team puts in, week in, week out. They rely on enough casual volunteers coming forward to fill the marshalling posts and some weeks that’s a struggle. If there aren’t enough for it to be a safe and enjoyable event, it can’t go ahead. But the reality is, marshalling is one of the easiest, lowest commitment forms of volunteering you could imagine. It’s done in about an hour, and you get lots of smiles and thanks in return for just clapping or timing.’
She adds, ‘When you stand on the course and watch participants go by, you realise there is a range of motivations for turning up on a Saturday. Yes, some people want to get fitter and improve their personal best. Others are there for Parkrun tourism, getting in some training miles, a sociable jog with friends, a solitary run to enjoy the seasons, part of a recovery, celebrating occasions, exercising the dog, or taking babies and toddlers for a buggy-run. At the beginning of the year, I was timekeeping, and we had a woman who completed the three laps walking for the first time since having major surgery, and it was a significant step on her recovery.’
Strengthening the practice community
Almost inevitably, the project has crossed over into Ms Jones’ educator role with the Workforce Training Hub, which runs a programme of training, mentoring, peer support and clinical supervision for nurses new to general practice in South Yorkshire.
‘We’re conscious that a particular threat to nurse retention in primary care is becoming isolated,’ she says. ‘Many work in small practice teams and the opportunities to meet and build connections with nurses at other practices are limited.’
With this in mind, practice nurses from across South Yorkshire have been invited to join their local Parkrun event on Saturday 13 May to mark the day after International Nurses Day and walk the 5km with colleagues.
Despite the name, it’s not only acceptable but common for individuals to walk Parkrun, and many events now have a designated volunteer ‘Parkwalker’. Ms Jones hopes it will be an opportunity for some to try their local event, meet other nurses and celebrate the work they do, and may even inspire some to sign up their own practice.
Later in the summer, Parkrun UK has also put out an invitation to celebrate 75 years of the NHS on Saturday 8 July or Junior Parkruns on Sunday 9 July at events across the country, which Jones and her practice will be taking part in.
‘We all know that the workload and pressure can feel exhausting and relentless,’ she says.
‘The pandemic gave me a real appreciation for the dedication and stamina of the people I work alongside, which makes it even more troubling to see to the personal toll it has taken. It is ironic that in a workplace where the core business is health and wellbeing, we often pay little more than lip-service to care and compassion towards ourselves and our teams. I do not think Parkrun can solve all this, but I do know the personal connections and restorative conversations that can happen when you walk or jog alongside someone else.’
Nurses interested in signing their practice up to become a Parkrun Practice can find further information including a toolkit of resources here http://rcgp.org.uk/parkrun.