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Why people skills have become essential to the NHS in its second wave challenge

Investigation 3rd November 2020

Our new research with HPMA and Selenity explored the state of employee relations (ER) in the NHS and how HR dealt with the extremes of the first wave lockdown. Question is, how can the NHS cope with ongoing, longer-term challenges for ER, now the clapping has stopped? What’s going to work best for both staff and patients during the ‘new normal’?

Professor Richard Saundry, one of the UK’s leading experts on workplace conflict, was commissioned to gather insights from more than 250 NHS Human Resources leaders, senior practitioners and trade union representatives for the report The Impact of Covid-19 on Employment Relations in the NHS [https://bit.ly/31pYii8].

His analysis suggests that the end of the national lockdown in the summer of 2020 led to the anticipated uptick in conflict, as staff were able to call on formal grievance procedures again – but at a lower level than might be expected. Something had changed.

There are worries about burnout and longer-term effects on psychological health. Stress-related absence and occupational health referrals continued to rise despite the initial slowing of the virus. Many respondents talked about staff being tired and exhausted, while staff who shielded during the height of the pandemic were often anxious about returning.

A key concern for HR is the reliance during the crisis on command and control approaches to management, how that might lead to behaviours being embedded, limiting collaboration and inclusivity, preventing people from being open about their views and challenging poor practice. The kind of conditions that reverse all the progress the NHS has been making in recent years on encouraging open conversations, diversity and trust.

At the same time, the first wave lockdown demonstrated positive lessons for moving forward under the inevitable strains and pressures ahead:

  • focusing on people skills and managing difficult conversations: more informal responses to disputes and conflict are effective in maintaining a sense of solidarity and shared goals;
  • ensuring good communication at all levels, making creative use of new technologies, listening to staff experiences and developing channels for employee voices;
  • building more ‘soft’ people skills among line and middle managers.

Most of all, there’s a need for consistency. Currently the picture on approaches to employment relations are mixed and patchy across Trusts. The Just and Learning culture is held up as a model of good practice but is only in operation in a small number of Trusts.

Even mediation isn’t necessarily available to all staff. There needs to be a single approach that all NHS employees can see and rely on across the UK, a unifying strategy that focuses on people skills and informal resolutions.

The pandemic can be turned into a force for change and a force for good, driving the NHS to see the essential value of staff wellbeing, HR and to invest a more open, listening and learning culture.