When Covid first hit, across the NHS there was a surge in redeploying staff to the frontline, doctors coming out of retirement and even graduates coming on board to help trusts across the UK deal with the demand. But none of that could have happened as quickly as it did without each trust’s HR team – and it was no different for south-west London-based Kingston Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. “It was a really challenging process for the team,” says Kelvin Cheatle, director of workforce. “We had to come up with new rotas and new working patterns almost overnight.”
Referring to the first wave of the pandemic as ‘Covid one’, Cheatle explains how, as well as launching a campaign as part of the national drive to encourage recently retired staff to rejoin the trust, a big part of this process was the need to “cut out the bureaucracy”. “We needed to fast track them in,” he explains. “So when reappointing people, we made sure their registrations were up to date, they had a current DBS check and were fit to practice. That gave us some supply relatively quickly.”
But redeployment didn’t just mean getting clinicians to the frontline, Cheatle adds: the trust also needed to “maximise” existing staff, including those in back office and corporate roles, and decide how best they could support the wards. This involved the HR team assessing people’s skills and working out where they could be safely redeployed – bearing in mind not to expose them to undue risk or asking them to do things beyond their skillsets. “We erred on the side of caution,” Cheatle says. “We wouldn’t ask someone to work in the ICU [intensive care unit], for example, unless they were completely up to date or could be retrained quickly.”
Cheatle, who has more than 20 years’ experience in HRD roles, recalls the “great spirit” among staff during Covid one, with the trust “overwhelmed with public support”. However, this had dried up by the second wave, and “Covid exhaustion” had set in. Although staff had accepted they needed to drop what they were doing, says Cheatle, it was “clearly a very stressful process”. This was particularly apparent when there was a huge spike in cases days before Christmas, with the trust forced to cancel annual leave and redeploy people “really rapidly” to deal with the surge.
One year on, it’s clear Covid has taken its toll on staff wellbeing – particularly those on the frontline. Before the pandemic, Cheatle explains, the trust did a lot on wellbeing, even winning an NHS England award in 2019. But Covid, he says, has made the trust “completely rethink” its approach. “During Covid one, we tried to provide wraparound care for staff – everything from mental health support to onsite parking and a pop-up supermarket,” he explains. “But we learned we weren’t equipped to do some things well.”
So when the second wave began, the trust focused on increasing engagement and listening to what staff wanted through team briefings and pulse surveys. “At one end of the spectrum, we brought in a clinical psychologist to support mental wellbeing because staff were suffering deep trauma,” Cheatle says. “But then night staff also told us they would value a hot meal, so we used some charitable funds to provide that. It was the HR team that served those meals.”
The pandemic has also led Cheatle and his team to re-evaluate their wellbeing strategy more broadly. Every employee now has wellbeing conversations with their line manager to find out what support they need, and that support is tailored to four key areas: family, physical, mental and financial health.
But wellbeing is not the only area Covid has shone a light on. Cheatle says it has also led the trust to rethink its I&D strategy and recruitment processes, and the Black Lives Matter movement and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people with ethnic minority backgrounds spurred the trust on to appoint a diversity champion. More than a third of the trust’s workforce has an ethnic minority background, with 57 nationalities represented. “The diversity champion will lead from the bottom up and find out what issues are facing BAME staff, those with disabilities – and our EU employees, because we regard them as a minority group too,” Cheatle explains. “And also to try and break the glass ceiling around career development.”
The pandemic also taught Cheatle about the trust’s capacity for organisational agility, particularly in terms of recruitment and onboarding. “It’s a bit like a war. When you’re in the middle of it, you realise you can do things quickly when you have to,” he says. “If we can get people in in three days during Covid, why can’t we get them in more quickly generally? Some of our processes are overly bureaucratic and we want to cut through that.”
One of the best things Cheatle says the trust has done during Covid was partner with three other local trusts – St George’s, Epsom and St Helier, and Croydon – to launch a joint recruitment hub, which acts as a ‘one-stop shop’ that allows them all to recruit at pace and scale, and has been vital in onboarding staff for the vaccine rollout. As part of its new recruitment strategy, the group has also introduced a digital staff passport, which has streamlined the onboarding process.
Covid has been a huge learning experience for HR teams, and they have played a vital role in supporting frontline staff. But the biggest challenge now, Cheatle says, is dealing with the backlog of elective surgeries while ensuring staff are rested. “They’ve been at it solidly for 12 months, so need to be ready to go,” he says. “But also in case we get a third wave – and no one knows if or when that will arrive.”