How valuable is staff engagement?

Steven Weeks

As organisations across the NHS face tough financial decisions on workforce issues, Steven Weeks, policy manager, NHS Employers looks at the value of staff engagement and whether it’s a luxury that can no longer be afforded.

The NHS is facing unprecedented financial pressures, which means many trusts will be taking very tough decisions on workforce issues in the coming months. We know that over 60 trusts have already been asked to reduce their pay bills, and with a new range of financial controls being announced, boards will feel the ongoing pressures to generate efficiency savings.  

Addressing these issues means there’s a real risk that staff engagement could be in danger of being side-lined. Experience in other sectors and from healthcare systems around the world, shows that sustaining staff engagement in these times is difficult and challenging, but it can be done.

Some may believe that in the current climate, staff engagement has become a luxury that can no longer be afforded. In fact, research has shown that sustaining staff engagement is even more important in these financially challenging times.

Involving your staff can be invaluable

Staff involvement can play a key role in helping organisations find the best way to make financial savings. By tapping into the wisdom of the crowd, organisations can identify ideas and strengthen their overall engagement.

Canada’s healthcare systems and public services are a good example of successful staff involvement in tough financial climates, because the employees worked with trade unions to identify and implement savings ideas suggested by staff.

Many UK car makers such as Honda, Jaguar and Nissan also worked with their trade unions during the 2008-10 recession agreeing to measures such as short time working in order to cut costs whilst preserving jobs. Other UK employers like BAE Systems and GKN focussed on increasing communication and strengthening engagement. These employers survived the recession with good levels of engagement and were able to take advantage of the subsequent upturns is the UK’s manufacturing industry during the last recession.

The NHS has traditionally been good at involving staff at ward level but less successful at involvement on an organisation wide basis. NHS Employers is developing a briefing note, which will be published shortly, with top tips to help you involve your staff more. We’re looking to identify and share examples of successfully involving staff when dealing with financial challenges. Please contact me if you can share your local experiences.

We have also been looking at what lessons we can learn from NHS organisations that have been through financial turnaround, and organisations from other parts of the economy that experienced dramatic downturn in 2008-2010.

Sustaining the momentum

It’s a difficult challenge to sustain staff engagement when tough financial choices have to be made. Although examples exist where this has happened, one example is that just under half of the NHS organisations placed in special measures in 2012 made improvements to their staff engagement scores by 2014. Experiences in these organisations are worth looking at.

For me, the key lesson is that effective communication with staff is essential. In addition, if practicable you can reap great benefits from staff involvement, drawing on ideas that staff have about how to make savings.

I will be looking at this in more detail over the next few months and would really welcome contact from organisations who are currently trying to address this challenge. Please email me

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