With health workers in a delicate state as the pandemic continues, and the NHS potentially facing an exodus of staff ahead of the requirement for Covid-19 vaccinations by April 2022, HR teams have an opportunity to rethink how they are supporting their workforce, as Dr Clare Holt writes.
The NHS has never been in a more fragile state. As the coronavirus pandemic continues, the effects of the biggest crisis to hit our country in generations are increasingly being felt.
Like many people, healthcare workers on the frontline of our country’s response to Covid-19 are all having to deal with the effect of loss – of patients, colleagues, friends, relatives – due to the virus.
Some are adjusting to new ways of working, others who were redeployed are now re-adjusting to old norms, and many attempt to balance new personal priorities. For these reasons, and many more, the pandemic has triggered some major issues for health sector HR teams to contend with.
How the NHS bounces back from Covid will in part rely on how well its workers are supported, managed, and reintegrated into their work environments.
Well-managed human and organisational factors set workers up for success, but poor leadership and management can mean safety and productivity are compromised. With our health service in such a delicate state, properly taking account of the needs of health workers is crucial and will assist in ensuring the NHS’s ability to react to the demands placed on it.
This includes ensuring that workers feel their wellbeing and psychological health are considered and valued by their employers, not just for the duration of the pandemic but for the future. This expectation may not be new, but the pandemic has undoubtedly reaffirmed its importance.
Well-managed human and organisational factors set workers up for success, but poor leadership and management can mean safety and productivity are compromised.”
With home working now having been normalised for so many of us over the past 20 months, priorities and responsibilities relating to our personal lives may have changed our expectations from our places of work.
Experiences like workers becoming used to being surrounded by family and children (and pets) during the working week requires an element of recognition in adapting working arrangements – in healthcare this is far simpler for non-clinical staff.
For clinical staff working shifts, this can be done through adjusting shift patterns to help workers better manage and make the most of their home life. But most importantly, making sure there are structures in place at work which go some way to replicating the emotional support people may have been getting at home.
Pressure on health workers
Retraining staff to help support their colleagues and empowering team leaders to identify signs that workers are suffering with stress can help support employees with compassion and empathy.
Of course, maintaining structure at work is also important, including policies like keeping workplaces organised and as predictable as possible, ensuring consistent, positive feedback to workers on what is going right, and encouraging a culture of asking for help when workloads or personal struggles become too much.
Wellbeing at home
For some staff, working from home could continue to be norm. Whatever the reason, they will still need access to tools needed to meet the demands placed on them.
Things like stress management tools can be used to help workers adapt to newer working arrangements, as well as implementing policies like virtual health and wellness offerings, and guides on meditation and breathing practices.
While staff are already the biggest cost for the NHS, and investing in tools to aid their wellbeing will add to that, they are also the health service’s biggest asset. Effective and compassionate care of the clinical and non-clinical workforce will lead to effective and compassionate care of those who rely on the service.
Dealing with loss
More support than ever is needed for those in clinical settings who experience loss as a result of Covid-19. While some workers will have gone through the trauma of seeing their own loved ones die from the disease, more obvious are the experiences they will have had at work, with more than 144,000 deaths now recorded as a result of Covid in the UK alone.
With restrictions on hospital visits in place for much of the pandemic, doctors and nurses were often the people relied on to be there in both Covid and non-Covid patients’ last moments. This more intimate role at the side of a patient, likely repeated again and again, could have a profound long-term effect on clinicians, with some already being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Doctors and nurses were often the people relied on to be there in both Covid and non-Covid patients’ last moments.”
Although the nature of many of their roles mean they are expected to be able to deal with loss at work, for many the experience of being that one person to support a patient whose own family were unable to be there, then recalling the passing of the patient to comfort and reassure the family, for them will have been a new and stark experience.
Making sure those workers are able to speak openly about their experiences, and be met with compassion and understanding, is crucial if they are to overcome any struggles relating to their compassionate duties on their wards.
While addressing problems regarding workers physical and emotional health is extremely important, the most effective way to lead NHS workers in moving forward is by taking a systemic and preventive approach.
If we identify the wider causes of poor wellbeing, things not necessarily related to the pandemic such as workloads, emotional upheaval, poor team functioning, etc, then the NHS will be much better placed to serve both its employees and care for its patients.
The health service has learned so much about itself through Covid. By using these learning opportunities appropriately leaders have the chance of ensuring our health service has a healthier future that will benefit all.