Building the right workplace culture in healthcare

Throughout the NHS, Trust leaders are particularly concerned about the resilience and wellbeing of their staff as the pandemic has unfolded. After the first wave, 99% were either extremely or moderately concerned about the current level of burnout across the workforce. 

Even more worrying is that COVID-19 has made one in four healthcare workers (almost one in three nurses and midwives) more likely to leave their role after the pandemic. This would be the equivalent of losing 350,000 vital workers.

It’s a trend which progressive think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) warns could impact healthcare capacity for years to come.

While it is impossible for healthcare leaders to reverse these nationwide trends overnight, they do have the power to transform culture from within and so influence healthy staff outcomes across their own organisation.

Successful leaders recognise that demonstrating care and compassion throughout the employee lifecycle, starting with recruitment, is essential to supporting and retaining NHS staff and building a positive workplace culture.

A key element for wellbeing is to feel valued and appreciated. Building a culture where communication is thoughtful and effective ensures that people know what is expected of them, that they are empowered to carry out their duties and they receive constructive feedback on their work.   

In Gallup’s employee engagement questionnaire, the first two questions are: 

  • Do you know what is expected of you at work?
  • Do you have the materials and equipment to do your work right?

Being able to say 'yes' to these questions, gives people a sense of purpose and self-belief at work which goes way beyond simply earning a living. Investing executive attention in ensuring that new staff have access to experienced staff they can approach with questions will reap dividends. It boosts confidence, empowers staff to care for patients in their own way and builds long-term staff loyalty.

The key to an effective recruitment strategy is if you retain the people you have, you don’t have to recruit, saving significant amounts of time and money that can be re-deployed to support better patient care. 

Here are three suggestions to help get on the right track from the very beginning.

Agree and define your ideal culture from the outset

Successful organisations know what their ideal workplace culture looks like before the recruitment process even begins. More importantly, they learn from the past to define the future. How many people join the NHS with high hopes only to have them dashed by the systemic failings of a healthcare culture that centres around fear and blame? 

If your staff continually ask themselves 'What will happen to me if something goes wrong?' now is the time to act quickly.

First, eradicate the fear that discourages staff involvement and paralyses productivity. After all, most people who have suffered grief and bereavement following the death of a loved one are more concerned with what you are doing to prevent this happening again to somebody else rather than punitive measures.  

Introduce a just culture that supports fairness, openness and learning by making staff feel confident to speak up when things go wrong, rather than fearing blame. Find ways to create a workplace environment where staff are encouraged to be open about their own mistakes as well as the potential failings of other individuals or the organisation as a whole. 

This allows valuable lessons to be learnt so the same errors can be prevented from being repeated.

At the same time, change the leadership style and be a servant leader, one that focuses on building systems and processes that enable people to flourish in their roles and to be the very best that they can be.

Interview smart

Develop an interview process that promotes your culture. Look beyond the usual pool of direct line managers. Instead, identify those individuals who express pride in working for your organisation, generate pride in themselves and in others and have the ability to enthuse and exhibit your ideal culture. 

Build and cultivate this network of culture champions and involve them in the critical first steps of the recruitment process. Don’t forget to re-assess – and amend if necessary – your corporate interview process.  

Cultivate the art of mentorship

Returning to the IPPR’s alarming statistics that the NHS could lose up to 350,000 valuable staff after the pandemic, the outlook is frightening on so many levels. If a large proportion of these people have years of experience behind them, then organisations risk losing an incredible bank of knowledge and expertise that has built up over decades. 

What is more, they lose a collective organisational memory of what works and what doesn’t, valuable learning that would be shared with new recruits. The lesson is: nurture experienced talent to build a highly effective pool of mentors that are critical to the success of your onboarding activities. Mentorship empowers and influences not only the new employee, but the mentor themselves.


Claire Aldred is managing director, UK & Europe of RLDatix