Blog post

Hearing our staff voice against the background noise

John Drew, director of staff experience and engagement at NHS England and NHS Improvement blogs about the 2020 NHS Staff Survey results.

23 March 2021


  • John Drew External link icon Director of Staff Experience and Engagement at NHS England and NHS Improvement,

A key theme in the NHS People Promise is ‘We have a voice that counts’. The NHS Staff Survey 2020, published last week, is an important way our NHS people can share what work is really like for them: what’s going well and what needs to change.

It was heartening to see that this year, the survey response rate held up very well. Despite this being a time of incredible pressure, 595,000 staff still took the time to tell us what they thought.

This survey is such a powerful listening tool. It enables our NHS people to tell us what things are like for them, with enough detail for us all to understand the drivers and causes that lie behind those experiences so that we can take specific, local action to address them.

Over the past months, new listening forums have been put in place in many NHS organisations, opening up new spaces for people to exchange ideas and views with senior leaders to inform important decisions, and staff networks help ensure everyone has a voice in how decisions are made.

The national survey is important, but it’s not the only way we can listen to the people who work in the NHS. In June 2020, we introduced the People Pulse – a free tool for NHS organisations to use to listen to their staff to better understand and improve their experience at work. Already more than 250 organisations have registered to use it or expressed an interest, and work is ongoing to develop it further.

In the end, the most important process for listening is a conversation - and we need to promote better conversations among all our staff, particularly about issues such as wellbeing and inclusion, if we are to embed a truly compassionate inclusive culture. New guidance for line managers and teams on how to hold successful wellbeing conversations, as we set out in the NHS People Plan 2020-21 will be one of the keys to this.

People at every level, especially leaders, must listen well and ask good questions – for example, through coaching skills. Initiatives such as Wellbeing Guardians, who will champion wellbeing at board level, are now providing a link between boards and individual teams. At a practical level, the balance of such conversations will need to continue to shift to encompass the whole people agenda, including culture.

Virtual management training opportunities during the pandemic, like the racial justice seminar series and ProjectM initiative provided by our national Lifelong Learning team and regional academies, are building the expertise and knowledge of leaders, line managers and team leaders to facilitate this.

Next year, we’ll be aligning the NHS Staff Survey with the seven themes of the People Promise, so we can directly measure how far the NHS is delivering the changes staff are asking for. In the meantime, we’ll shortly be launching a new tool that maps organisations’ Survey findings against the Promise themes, using the New Model Health System platform, to track their progress.

Like trying to talk to a friend at a noisy party, we may need to move closer, and listen harder, to be able to hear our staff voice above the background noise that our ways of working, systems, structures and processes generate. I hope that part of the legacy of COVID is that it has moved us closer together, as well as towards a more compassionate inclusive culture, built on the basic human values of good listening, trust and kindness.