· 4 min read · Features

Case study: Gateshead NHS Trust and psychology-based learning


Gateshead NHS Trust has used colours-based psychological profiling to reduce stress-related absence, improve workplace relationships, and teach staff more about themselves

The organisation

Situated in the heart of north-east England, Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust employs nearly 4,000 people in both clinical and non-clinical roles supporting 580 hospital beds across Gateshead. Established in 2005 it is one of the oldest foundation trusts in the UK and provides specialist services in the areas of breast screening, gynaecology, maternity, palliative care and old-age psychiatry.

The problem

Although the Trust has consistently achieved the highest levels of care for its patients, in 2015 management and HR identified that stress was causing high numbers of absences in some departments, which in turn was leading to high staff turnover. Poor teamwork was recognised as a contributory factor and a developmental area that needed to be addressed – not only to avoid the personality clashes and conflict that were causing stress, but to ensure staff improved their workplace relationships, and those with patients too. As Karen O’Brien, deputy director of workforce at Gateshead Health NHS Foundation Trust, tells HR magazine: “We wanted a tool that would help staff better talk to each other – but more in terms of ‘how’ they relate to each other and how they could choose the way they needed to interact.”

The method

O’Brien had already used ‘Insights Discovery’ training in previous roles – a psychology-based learning solution that uses a four-colour model to describe the styles, strengths and values people bring to teams. Based on the work of Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the colours comprise Fiery Red, Sunshine Yellow, Earth Green and Cool Blue. Everyone has elements of each, but most will have a dominant colour.

Together with colleague Joanne Coleman – a qualified Insights coach and the Trust’s strategic safeguarding lead – a programme was put together specifically to target a range of staff groups, including clinical teams, whose stress and absence levels were the highest.

“These are people who might be screening patients for cancers, so it can be an emotional job,” says Coleman. “So while a Green person might be more empathetic and want to express their feelings more, a Red person may simply want results and to be more procedural, which is where clashes occur. One of the teams we started with – comprising 126 people – had a sickness absence rate of 40%. To tackle this we wanted colleagues to start having very different conversations, knowledgeable of what colour type they are.”

The programme was kicked off by inviting colleagues in that specific team to take part, stressing that the initiative was not designed to label them. Communications were very much along the lines that this was an opportunity that may help them understand themselves better.

“Colour energies are not good or bad,” says Coleman (who is mainly a Yellow). “We’re very careful to point out that no colour is better than another. To demonstrate this – and to convey that we were taking people on a personal journey of discovery – we didn’t just let people take a psychometric test. At the start of all the sessions we’d gently introduce the colours concept by encouraging staff to play a colour wheel game, or pick cards that have qualities written on them that may be one colour or another. They would be asked to keep or give away cards to their colleagues. This created much deeper thinking about the process.”

Adds O’Brien (who leads with Red): “Most people have an idea what their personality type is likely to be anyway, and the results largely confirmed this for people. The game-playing elements – including where people try to guess the colour of colleagues – made it more fun, and interactive, and got staff thinking about the eventual colour they would most conform to.”

Once people learned what dominant colour they were that wasn’t the end. “We provided support about what this might mean; for instance if people now know they are a Fiery Red we can provide L&D about how they can better relate to and understand the different outlooks of Yellows or Greens,” says O’Brien. “Sometimes it may just be training in ramping up more of one colour – like a Red if someone is a Blue to make sure things get done on time.”

The result

Since the profiling was launched, 354 employees have discovered their colour and a further 361 people have had awareness sessions via away days. While some – particularly consultants – were initially skeptical, full buy-in was achieved once the results started to come through.

The Trust now knows exactly what the composition of its support and clinical teams is: 47% lead with a caring, sensitive Green energy (which is just what the Trust would hope for), while 30% lead with a Blue energy (more conservative problem-solvers), 18% lead with Yellow (more spontaneous) and 5% lead with Red (those who are business-like, functional, and like to be in control).

Because Reds generally fear losing control but Greens generally avoid confrontation and are most prone to feeling over-burdened, the immediate result has been greater inter-colleague understanding. “We can see the benefit of the profiling in the way staff are connecting with each other,” says Coleman. “There used to be a lot of tension in the air; now people are asking how the other feels, and if they are OK. We fully expect the results of our first engagement survey [since the initiative] to confirm that people feel happier and more listened to.”

From a metrics point of view, sickness absence in the team most in need of the profiling has now been slashed to just 3%. But there are much bigger plans afoot – most notably to use colour composition data to inform recruitment. “We want more people who are technical, or will get tasks done, and are now using Insights to recruit for specific colours,” says O’Brien. “For instance, our pharmacy team mostly leads with a Blue energy. They have no Reds to ensure projects stick to timescales. We’ve used this information to identify a need for hiring someone with more Red-like qualities.”

On a day-to-day basis the colours profiling is now used to better assign people to tasks. Coleman says: “When people are asked to do a piece of work we no longer say ‘that’s your role’ to colleagues. We now ask who has the skills, but crucially who also has the best fit of colour energies to make this particular piece of work a success.”

Overall the initiative has created the conditions for a much better working environment. “People understand that if they are talked to in an overly direct manner it’s not always a reflection of them, it’s the way some people go about their jobs,” says O’Brien. “We’re not saying someone’s colour is an excuse to behave in a particular way, but people now know that someone’s modus operandi is just them being them.”

Office-based employees who have done the profiling have four coloured bricks on their desk so people can quickly see what colour type they are. Whether some ward staff should have a coloured sticker on their name badges is also being considered.