‘Some dubbed it BMI being Circled’ – how successfully merging two healthcare providers led to winning two CIPD People Management Awards

Circle Health Group’s chief people officer shares how he and his HR team brought two culturally unique organisations together – and scooped two CIPD People Management Awards in the process

In 2019, Circle Health acquired BMI Healthcare and in June 2020 it became official, and Circle Health Group (CHG) was born. The healthcare provider became a 9,000 strong operation with a 60-65-strong HR-led team to help manage the merger of two vastly different cultures. Added to this was managing an operation that was geographically dispersed from Aberdeen in Scotland to Dorset on the Jurassic coast. 

“We laid out what our values and beliefs were, and it was well received by BMI,” says David Cooper, CHG’s chief people officer. “The aim was to modernise and future proof the newly integrated business. The merger was huge because it meant that together we had become the biggest private healthcare provider in the UK. 

“Some dubbed it ‘BMI being Circled’ which I suppose is one way of looking at it. But in reality, we were taking the most successful parts of Circle’s and BMI’s values and creating something new, but with a shared history from both organisations.”

Cooper tells People Management that the change “journey” was only going to be possible if everyone was on board, which meant “going out on the road and visiting as many hospitals as possible”.

This came at a time when the Covid pandemic was still a major threat to public health, but CHG continued to focus on building shared values as well as outstanding patient care and innovation under Cooper’s leadership. He and his team rapidly formed a cohesive entity with a shared vision for the two newly merged businesses to get behind. 

As a result, trust in each other grew and the team played to each other’s strengths working to produce significant results for all CHG employees. This fundamentally underpinned the achievement of the people function becoming a key strategic partner to the organisation. 

“We went out on the road with the message that, ‘good enough, never is’ and spoke about moving towards some of Circle’s agile philosophy of being quick to market and to innovate,” says Cooper. 

The newly formed business won the Private Hospital Group of the year 2021 at the Health Investor Awards and received high praise from Cabinet ministers and NHS executives for the tireless support of the NHS and thousands of patients in need of urgent care.

Creating new job roles and a wellbeing calendar 

Talent acquisition was recognised as one of the biggest challenges, so the group created a new role – employee candidate experience co-ordinator – to help tackle that head on and ease the induction for new starters. The addition of ‘Circle Task Forces’ has also helped to tap into what employees want, with the implementation of dedicated workstreams to address areas of the business of importance to employees.

Leadership and development were a further area for development and so CHG partnered with Liverpool Business School to put 300 leaders through a leadership programme. The group’s L&D offering has been further established with an apprenticeship-levy funded programme for nurses and physios. “We’ve worked hard on growing our own staff,” says Cooper.

Wellbeing is another crucial part of the CHG values. “We have a wellbeing calendar with four parts: mind, move, money and munch. The last is an initiative about sharing recipes and food ideas. There are activities every quarter.” Tapping into the demographics of the organisation has also been key. In 2021, CHG launched its World Menopause Day with around a quarter (23 per cent) of the workforce falling into an age range which means they may be affected by menopause. The company has a resource pack to help women with support and guidance. 

Hardship fund and staff recognition

It's been important to the organisation to recognise the variety of backgrounds and financial status of their employees, particularly during the cost of living crisis and in recognition that hard times can hit at any moment. “We have a hardship fund, and in total we have provided over £25,000 to staff for anything ranging from the replacement of a fridge/freezer to other things. We see it as a simple return for their loyalty to us and our low staff turnover demonstrates how important little initiatives like this are for giving staff the confidence that their employer supports them.”

The philosophy is very much about looking after people in their entirety and throughout their employment journey, starting from the moment they start a family with the ability to enhance parental leave packages, to supporting those that have lost a baby with up to four weeks leave full pay regardless of service.

It’s important that staff feel valued too and there is a range of recognition initiatives from peer-to-peer with the ‘Circle Connect’ which saw within its first six months over 14,000 moments of recognition to national staff celebration days, ensuring that staff were celebrated with gifts and free lunches. 

“It’s very data driven, we know that the number one cause of absence for example is stress, anxiety and depression and so we have devised ways to help staff suffering from those conditions,” says Cooper.

'Warts and all' CEO sessions

Evidence-based decisions are part of this shared success. “The Circle acquisition has given us the impetus to do things. It’s very exciting,” explains Cooper, who adds that it’s been vital that CEO, Paolo Pieri, has been on board. There is a ‘warts and all’ sharing event led by Pieri once a quarter, something which has been received well by staff who report that it’s very valuable and accessible to them.  

Navigating the Covid pandemic as a healthcare provider during one of the most challenging threats to public health in history is a testament to CHG’s value-driven employee policies. Scooping the accolades for the HR/L&D team of the year for the private sector, as well as the ​​Best organisational development or organisational design initiative at the 2022 CIPD People Management Awards shows that when great adversity strikes and two disparate factions join forces, a great outcome can be achieved. 

Further reading:

Organisational development: what is it and how does HR 'do OD' successfully?