I’ll tell you something: Covid has proved the value of NHS HR – now it’s time to invest in it

The dearth of soft people skills among managers in the UK’s biggest employer needs to be addressed, says Dean Royles

Covid has meant one huge shock, one paradigm shift and one grim adaptation after another for the NHS workforce. But if there is one lesson that will be most significant to the future of the UK’s biggest employer, it’s the critical role of HR. 

The past eight months have seen a coming of age for the function. HR in the NHS has long been seen as just transactional and procedure and process driven – that is until the pandemic hit, and lockdown meant that many of those processes had to be put on hold. Despite the enormous pressure staff have faced, the NHS has almost unbelievably seen a largely positive picture of improving employment relations, more effective working with trade unions and better handling of conflict.

The extreme pandemic conditions have become a window on just how much the organisation needs HR for protecting and promoting positive relationships at work and ensuring the best patient outcomes. New research commissioned by the Healthcare People Management Association, along with our partners, CMP and Selenity, is evidence of this. Richard Saundry, professor of HRM and employment relations at the University of Sheffield, gathered insights from more than 250 NHS HR leaders, senior practitioners and trade union representatives for a report: The Impact of Covid-19 on Employment Relations in the NHS.

It reveals how the initial lockdown period meant that HR needed to rely on people skills and more informal approaches to dealing with grievances and disputes. Rather than confusion, this brought real benefits to ER, demonstrating the value of good people management and informal skills over formal procedures. For example, the number of disputes fell significantly during the first wave of Covid. While this was mainly down to the postponement of formal disciplinary procedures, the research also found that increased camaraderie and solidarity had improved relationships. Just over three-quarters of respondents felt that disciplinary and grievance issues were bogged down in lengthy procedures, but the lockdown period had, by contrast, led to an increase in partnership working between management and unions, improved communications, more agile working and flexibility. There was also evidence of managers developing informal and creative solutions to workplace problems.

The NHS knows from bitter experience the value of having a more open, learning culture. But there has to be a unifying strategy that focuses on informal resolutions to make the principles work in practice, for both staff and patients to benefit. For this to happen, there needs to be concerted action to address what was agreed in the research to be a deficit of ‘soft’ people skills among some managers.

Poor line management was seen as a typical source of conflict – only one third of respondents felt that managers were well-equipped to resolve difficult issues. In other words, greater investment is needed to train people professionals to embed improved staff communication, enhanced health and wellbeing, greater organisational agility and the creative use of new technology. Existing leadership development programmes, it was said, often neglected the techniques managers needed to identify and resolve conflict.

The coming winter is going to be tough on the country and on the NHS. But the second wave will be an opportunity to build on lessons about the huge value of people skills and human solidarity.  

Dean Royles is president of the Healthcare People Management Association