Sue Johnson Gregory, principal consultant, and Tim Powlson, senior business consultant at Entec Si, explain how to build a stronger, more joined up workforce in the face of future healthcare crises
Lessons learned from the coronavirus pandemic could help healthcare trusts to become more collaborative and resilient organisations in the months ahead. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, lack of frontline workers, structural inflexibility and rigid work practices posed challenges for the NHS. However, with careful planning and effective communication to get teams on board with changes, trusts can build a more robust and joined up workforce in the face of future healthcare crises and avoid ‘single points of failure’. So, where should they start?
Addressing structural and flexibility problems
While COVID-19 is still testing the resilience of the UK’s healthcare teams, it has raised a number of key cultural challenges that must be addressed in order for the sector to build back stronger. These range from understaffing and inflexibility within staffing arrangements, to pandemic-related mental health issues and the lack of a long-term transformation strategy.
Staffing issues have proven a significant challenge for the NHS for many years, with the number of doctors and carers per thousand people still below that of other EU countries. Addressing this problem has been a long-term priority of trusts, but the pandemic has made it more urgent, especially with growing concerns about future healthcare crises.
Although it’s a tricky issue to address, it’s vital that trusts dedicate time to identifying their unique cultural challenges and finding creative ways to respond to them. Adopting an agile approach to developing solutions, piloting improvements and testing what works for the individual trust could help in overcoming long-term cultural pressures.
Addressing inflexibility within existing staffing arrangements can play a vital role in meeting high levels of demand for healthcare services and achieving a genuinely resilient and fulfilled team. This may involve asking employees to take on more responsibilities in order to fill in any knowledge gaps and avoid single points of failure, such as the only specialist in a particular field becoming ill. However, this process must be handled carefully and sensitively to avoid employee burnout and protect workforce wellbeing.
When implementing any change, taking steps to understand the needs of all those involved, including those working on the front-line, should be the first port of call. During the pandemic, the stark difference between the experiences of front-line staff and those in administration roles has never been clearer. As such, their needs and perceptions of suggested changes are likely to vary significantly. Front-line staff must also be involved in idea generation and decision-making at all stages of the transformation process, to strengthen staff buy-in and optimise the success of the change journey.
Take care of mental health and wellbeing
For positive cultural change to happen, trusts must address the mental health impact of the pandemic on their people. COVID-19 has caused different issues across departments, with PTSD and depression being some of the most common. Recognising that everyone has been affected differently by the virus and tailoring the supported they’re provided will help bring trusts and people together.
A focus on building individual resilience will also ensure that people are better equipped to handle stressful periods, and go towards strengthening the resilience of the trust as a whole. An emphasis on mental wellbeing support can go a long way towards creating a more joined up workforce that can efficiently respond to changes in demand.
Prioritise effective line management
In order to strike an effective balance between the need to provide excellent levels of patient care, and the need to care for staff, exceptional line management is vital. This should involve training managers to support their employees and treat them fairly. Spotting the signs of poor mental health and supporting them is crucial, however, employees will only open up to managers if they feel safe and supported. Compassionate leadership at all levels of the NHS is vital to supporting frontline staff.
Communicate and collaborate
Clear and open communication with all involved, including employees, can also help trusts when implementing cultural transformation. Although structural change, such as implementing a new IT system or a raft of new operating procedures, helps in building a more joined up workforce, it will not solve cultural issues without supporting measures.
Collaboration with the local community can support trusts during times of crisis and relationships built and strengthened through the initial COVID-19 response should form a part of trusts’ long-term plans. For example, this could involve creating local wellbeing initiatives and support groups.
Many trusts have put long-term plans to increase their collaboration with communities on hold in order to cope with the increased demand, using a reactive decision-making approach. However, looking at healthcare provision on a community basis could help to lessen the burden on trusts.
Every trust is different and will be feeling the impact of the pandemic in a unique way. While there is no easy fix for underlying cultural issues, thoroughly reviewing transformation plans will help spot areas that could be strengthened.
With the possibility of further healthcare crises ahead and understaffing issues remaining, trusts urgently need to take steps to become more resilient. Despite cultural change often requiring significant time investment, it can deliver great value for trusts in the long-term.
Addressing staffing constraints, prioritising workforce wellbeing and reflecting on the experience of the past year will ensure that the best lessons learned aren’t forgotten. Instead, they are taken on and provide value when implementing cultural change.