In spite of intense pressures, risks and strain, being in the thick of the Covid-19 crisis temporarily improved employee relations among NHS staff. The experience has shown how solidarity, when there’s no time or practical opportunity to fall back on formal processes, works better for employees and management. 

More than just a reassuring picture of togetherness in the NHS, it’s a critical lesson for the future of the organisation’s culture. The spirit of informal, hands-on people management needs to be bottled in order to cope with the prospect of long-Covid and the inevitable upsurge in grievances and conflict.

The evidence comes from stories and insights gathered from more than 250 NHS Human Resources leaders, senior practitioners and trade union representatives for the report The Impact of Covid-19 on Employment Relations in the NHS.

They confirmed the challenges faced by staff as they dealt with the anxiety and workload pressures created by the first wave of the pandemic: more than 8 in 10 survey agreed that Covid had a ‘detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of staff’ in their organisations. 57% reported increased stress-related absence, while nearly two-thirds saw an increase in referrals to occupational health. A number of respondents reported concerns among BAME staff that they were being exposed to unnecessary risk.

Despite this situation the numbers of disputes fell significantly during the first wave. While this was partly due to the postponement of formal conflict and disciplinary procedures, the research also found that increased camaraderie had improved relationships. Just over 75% of respondents felt that the traditional disciplinary and grievance approach – unavailable during the period – with its emphasis on the management of risk, had meant being bogged down in the application of procedures. Drawn out grievance situations led to more negative impacts and tangles of issues for staff. The lockdown period had led instead to an increase in partnership working between management and unions, improved communications, more agile working and flexibility. There was evidence of managers developing their own informal and creative solutions to workplace problems.

Currently the picture on approaches to employment relations are mixed and patchy across Trusts – the Just and Learning culture for a few, command and control for others. Even mediation isn’t necessarily available for staff in all Trusts. There needs to be more consistency, a single approach that all NHS employees can see and rely on across the UK. The NHS knows the value of having a more open, listening and learning culture, but there has to be a unifying strategy that focuses on people skills and informal resolutions that makes the principles work in practice, for both staff and patients to benefit.

For this to happen, then, there needs to be concerted action to address what was agreed in the research to be a deficit of ‘softer’ people skills among managers. Poor line management was seen as a typical source of conflict, while only one-third of respondents felt that managers were well equipped to resolve difficult issues.

Existing leadership development programmes, it was said, often neglected the tools and techniques that managers need to identify, address and resolve conflict. Investment in training was being mis-directed to senior levels rather than the frontline people managers.

In recent years there has been a welcome and growing acknowledgement of the critical connection between staff wellbeing and engagement, and patient care. In many ways this been underlined during the pandemic, highlighting the importance of HR in protecting and promoting positive relationships at work. The NHS now has a vital window of opportunity to embed the value of good people skills and people management as a core strategic priority.

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