Creating a culture of engagement at the Royal College of Nursing

Laura Chamberlain talks to David Cooper, winner of Personnel Today’s HR director of the year award, sponsored by Pinsent Masons, about the journey he took to bring the RCN’s HR department into the modern day.

Four and a half years ago, when David Cooper joined the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), the HR department was “almost prehistoric”. Employee morale was low and there was a culture of complaining throughout the workforce, despite staff receiving good pay and benefits. Fast-forward to the present day and Cooper now stands in a team that has brought the organisation up to date by delivering on promises, introducing a scheme to enhance employee wellbeing and developing a good relationship with the organisation’s union, the GMB.

In 2008, a staff survey painted a worrying picture of engagement at the RCN. Morale stood at an all-time low, with a score of 30%, and the overall engagement figure was a cause for concern at 54%.






David Cooper

David Cooper, HR director, Royal College of Nursing.


Shortly before this, when Cooper joined the RCN, the HR department was functioning so badly that he considered shutting it down and outsourcing the function.

“I’d never seen a department that was so closely representative of what personnel welfare was when it first started. I’m not saying that’s wrong, but the profession, and what’s required of it, had moved on since then, and it hadn’t in the RCN.

“Nobody had any trust or confidence in it and it didn’t know what it was there to do.”

After one week in the role, Cooper told the general secretary of the RCN that the best thing they could do was either to shut down the HR department completely and buy in the service for a while, or for Cooper to be allowed complete free rein to redesign and reposition it. They went with the latter.

Sunday Times’ “Best companies to work for” list

Two years on from that initial staff survey, 91% of staff said that they were proud to work for the RCN and the overall engagement score stood at 85%. The organisation also became the only trade union and professional association to feature on the Sunday Times’ “Best companies to work for” list in 2011. So what did Cooper do to boost engagement so significantly?

Cooper finds the subject a little hard to discuss: “It’s really difficult to talk about what you do. It fills me with horror because I read articles by some HR directors and there is a tendency for them to sound a bit like David Brent.

“I’ve always wanted to be different and fresh in my approach, and the minute I think I sound like someone else I come out in a rash and get goose pimples. Plenty of people could have done what I did. It is often just about how you communicate with people.”

Despite his modesty, communication was key to what Cooper did. While staff were accustomed to promises that were never delivered, Cooper and his team introduced an open approach where, if something couldn’t be done, they told staff why.

“What they needed was some really honest communication around what was achievable, what was a realistic request and what wasn’t,” he says.

Focused action plan

The team ran a staff survey to see where people thought things could be improved and then put together a focused action plan that delivered most of what they wanted.

“Where we couldn’t deliver, we said very openly: ‘Look, somebody’s asked for an Olympic-sized swimming pool at headquarters. It’s not going to happen. But what we can do is create better career development opportunities and we can create a grade within the pay structure for modern apprenticeships.’”

He also publicised what the team did, what they didn’t do, and why. He found that this helped to bring the engagement scores up and changed the mood at the organisation. The complaints culture was transformed into something much more positive.

But it wasn’t just the negative attitudes of the workforce that Cooper had to confront. Relations with the GMB, their internal union, had reached a critical stage.

“Four and a half years ago they were as militant as you can get. Grievances were flying around. The GMB had completely lost faith in the management of the organisation and, therefore, their only approach was to stop everything.

“But what they did was to create an incredibly antagonistic culture based on grievances and disputes and, in doing so, they stopped the organisation developing and moving forward in any way.”

Changing relationship

So how did both the RCN and the GMB change this relationship to benefit them both? Cooper says that it took trust on both sides.

“For me, it was a question of spending some really good, honest time with the key GMB players – the chair and the secretary – and saying: ‘You’re going to have to trust me. I will trust you. Together we will have a phenomenally close relationship and you will be privy to information and decisions that nobody would ever be privy to outside of myself and our general secretary.’ We brought them in and made them a virtually indispensible part of it.”

On top of this, Cooper made sure to always deliver on his promises. “It’s all very well to go and listen, and say ‘yes, yes, yes’, but if you can’t deliver then you’ve got no credibility,” he says.

Despite demanding a lot of time, the RCN’s new relationship with the GMB has been beneficial during the changes that have taken place in the organisation. “Overall, we’ve been successful only because of the reaction and the support of the GMB. We couldn’t have done it without them and they’ve adopted a very modern, progressive trade union approach.”









What the RCN’s wellbeing programme involved:



  • Training of 19 staff to become health and wellbeing advocates to support the project.
  • Introduction of a health calendar to encourage staff participation in health-related topics.
  • A 24-hour employee assistance programme to provide support for staff and their immediate families.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy seminars for smokers at a cost of £260 for three-day sessions in work time.
  • A two-week trigger for referring staff on continuous sickness absence to occupational health and day-one referral for staff suffering from stress, other mental health problems or musculo-skeletal conditions.
  • Introduction of a work-life balance policy, which provides 10 options for staff to work in the most effective way for them – such as compressed hours, flexitime or term-time working.
  • One-day workshops on managing stress, pressure and emotional resilience.
  • A bike-user group to encourage bicycle usage and to help make it a more convenient option for staff travelling to work.
  • On-site wellness checks administered by occupational health as part of the British Heart Foundation’s Healthy Hearts Month.
  • Reduced-rate massage and reflexology sessions on-site.
  • A monthly newsletter to promote health and wellbeing.
  • An annual “learning at work week” in which staff volunteer to deliver stress-busting learning events such as meditation, singing and a knitting group.

Employee wellbeing scheme

Another arm of Cooper’s efforts to raise positivity and engagement in the organisation was to introduce a new wide-ranging employee wellbeing scheme. This programme won the RCN a second award at the Personnel Today Awards for Health at Work, sponsored by Constructing Better Health.

Staff feedback had identified this as an area that could be improved upon and Cooper saw that they could get a reasonable return on investment.

“Sickness was high. We’d done everything from a management point of view around triggers and return-to-work interviews. What we needed to do was look at the overall wellbeing and happiness of our staff.”

But Cooper didn’t go for a one-size-fits-all approach when drawing up the wellbeing scheme; he made sure that each element focused on the health issues that were present in the organisation.

“We looked at how we might raise awareness of issues associated with people’s health and wellbeing to start to get them to take some personal responsibility and we thought about introducing initiatives that would support them in their physical and mental health.

“We worked really hard to link that to the indicators that were present in our organisation, whether it be bad backs, stress, diabetes or something specific to men or women, rather than taking a general blanket approach.”

Unconventional techniques

While the scheme included some more straightforward tactics to tackle workplace wellbeing, including a 24-hour employee assistance programme and the involvement of occupational health in long-term absence, it also included a few less conventional techniques.

As part of the programme, the team introduced an annual “learning at work week” where staff volunteer to deliver learning events with stress-busting qualities, such as meditation, singing and even knitting.

“I’m not going to comment on whether knitting helps wellbeing, but one of the things we do is to try and do things differently. Just as an example, we have an in-house choir. Does singing in anyway help people’s health and wellbeing? I’m not a medic so I can’t comment on that but what it has done is help raise the level of people’s morale and devotion.”

Support provided to help staff stop smoking

Another element of the programme that Cooper is particularly proud of is the support provided to help staff stop smoking. Smokers were offered three-day, cognitive behavioural therapy sessions at a cost of £260, and the time taken to attend these sessions was ring-fenced.

“We put a lot of effort into an incredibly supportive policy on giving up smoking. We had a view of the number of smokers in the organisation, which was quite high, and I took a bit of a risk with it because, if all the smokers had taken up the support we offered them, it would have cost an absolute fortune. But we’ve had some really good examples in the organisation of long-term smokers who have given up because of the support.”

Overall, the health scheme reduced stress levels, boosted morale and resulted in huge cost savings for the organisation. In 2009/10, after the wellbeing programme had been implemented, the number of days lost to absence was 1,839 days fewer than two years earlier. The RCN estimates that the total cost saving from the wellbeing initiative has been more than £45,000.

Double win at Personnel Today Awards






David Cooper

David Cooper at the Personnel Today Awards.


Both Cooper’s and the HR team’s efforts to transform the HR function and create a mentally and physically healthy workforce contributed to their double win at the Personnel Today Awards at the end of 2011.

Cooper says that getting external recognition like this is really important for the team as it helps to motivate them in what they do.

“For the RCN to win two awards on the night was beyond our wildest expectations, particularly given that we are a trade union and professional association. Often you don’t think that the work that you do, within the financial constraints that you have, is going to be acknowledged and so therefore it’s wonderful when it is.

“I’m very focused on doing the best I can do for the RCN, and this award won’t change that, but it’s nice for the organisation and is a tremendous reflection of the RCN and what it stands for.”

View the full list of winners from the Personnel Today Awards 2011.