Promoting a productive workplace

Given the unprecedented pressure on the NHS and its workforce, 2017’s annual NHS Staff survey had surprisingly positive findings. Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, looks at the role that employee morale has in creating a healthy NHS workplace

When it comes to the issue of staff health, the evidence really could not be more clear - healthier staff are more engaged and more productive. For example, patient satisfaction is consistently higher in trusts with better rates of staff health and well-being, with mental ill health costing society £105 billion a year.

What does that mean for us as employers? Of course we should focus on physical health in the workplace, provide reduced rates for gyms, cut sugar in our restaurants. And we need to focus on emotional well-being by creating a workplace where we are happy to talk about how we feel, free of stigma associated with mental ill health and where talking about mental illness is a conversation which managers and their teams can comfortably have together.

But there is more to it than that, well-being is multi-faceted. If we want to make a real difference to productivity and morale we need to go beyond the obvious areas of physical and emotional well-being. I could be the fittest person in the land and go to the staff gym, benefit from healthy food in the canteen and from the vending machines, but still feel disengaged and unproductive. There are some key determiners of well-being in the work place which we would be wise to remember.

Firstly, we must articulate what matters most to our organisations, and then honestly measure our performance accordingly. In other words, do we authentically live our values? If we say that we want to make our organisation the best place to work and be the employer of choice, do our colleagues really feel that or is their lived experience totally different? We often fail to pay our values and their integrity as much attention as we should, especially in terms of the organisation itself. So saying that the patient is the most important part of our work, but constantly using financial and business language when we talk to staff, doesn’t really show integrity.

Secondly, we need to look at the extent to which our colleagues feel they have control and autonomy over their work. Not only is this a key element of good individual mental health, it is essential for their engagement and thence productivity. Colleagues who are enabled to take control, to come up with new ideas and make changes, will be the ones who push the boundaries and try new approaches – and this will lead to increased organisational performance.

In all my time in the NHS, I am clear that our people don’t want to come to work to make things worse, they want to do a good job and generally make things better, both for themselves, their colleagues and those we are proud to serve. We as leaders therefore need to create an environment where we bluntly we recognise and listen to the expertise of our teams. We have so many good people working for us who could come up with new ideas which will improve how we work, so why not give them some freedom and control?

Finally, we must invest in and enable our managers and team leaders. Those charged with leading our teams are the fundamental ingredient in this approach. The most effective managers are those who make the values real, who listen and engage with their teams, valuing and backing their ideas, setting clear priorities and giving clear advice and feedback. They produce environments in which people feel able to provide feedback and support to each other. These are the conditions in which healthy and productive workplaces thrive and grow.

These ideas may seem born of cliche or somewhat pat. They are not: this is the seemingly 'soft stuff' which is actually really hard: it demands authentic and thoughtful application, the humility to listen, and the patience to invest in our people, their teams and their leaders.

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