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The impact of COVID on Employment Relations in the NHS

Investigation 31st July 2020

The state of employment relations – bullying and harassment and the unnecessary use of disciplinary suspensions in particular – have become an increasing area of focus for NHS employers. Concern over the effects on both patient care and staff wellbeing from grievances and conflict has driven the NHS to become a centre for innovation, the growing use of workplace mediation, conflict management systems and ‘Just and Learning Cultures’.

Then came COVID-19.

Past innovations in employment relations were triggered by a challenging operational context. Working relationships could become strained by the intense pressures created by combinations of limited funding, scarce resources, growing demand and increased scrutiny – but the 2020 pandemic has meant a new level of extreme and unforeseen pressures. What has this meant for the NHS workforce and its relationships? A new sense of community and solidarity forged from adversity – or new strains and conflict that have been only temporarily buried, likely to re-surface when a sense of greater normality returns?

New research is underway among NHS HR managers to explore the impact of COVID-19 on employment relationships. The project is being carried out by Professor Richard Saundry, one of the UK’s leading academic experts on the management of workplace conflict, sponsored by workplace relationships specialists CMP, the HPMA and HR cloud technology provider Selenity.

The key questions for the research will be to:
i) assess the capacity of NHS organisations to manage conflict and promote positive employment relationships;
ii) identify the key challenges involved in the management of conflict in the NHS pre COVID-19;
iii) examine the impact of Covid-19 on the quality of working relationships and on the incidence of workplace conflict;
iv) explore organisational strategies for dealing with any negative impacts of the pandemic on employment relations in the NHS.

Each of the research instruments and outputs are being developed in consultation with the project’s sponsors.

The first stage will be a review of any existing research, grey literature and press and other reports relating to any employment and staffing impacts of COVID-19 in the NHS. This context will be used to inform development of the second stage of the research: an online survey to be distributed to HR practitioners and managers in the NHS through partner organisations such as the HPMA. The survey will aim to explore four main areas of interest: existing capacity for the management of workplace conflict; the nature and extent of conflict prior to COVID-19; impact of COVID-19 on working relationships; and strategies in place to deal with the employment relations consequences of Covid-19. The final part of the research will be a series of between 15 and 25 semi-structured interviews with senior HR practitioners and managers. These will be drawn from contacts and networks of partner organisations as well as survey respondents.

A full research report and executive summary of findings is scheduled to be made available to HPMA members at the end of September 2020.

If you are an NHS HR leader and wish to participate in the research, please follow this link to the online survey: https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/HPMACovidER