Blog post

Staff engagement and retention - squaring the circle

Steven Weeks explains how a focus on staff engagement can help support the retention of your workforce within the NHS.

25 September 2023

Through listening more closely to employees, trusts can benefit from both a boost in staff engagement and workforce retention levels, suggests NHS Employers policy manager Steven Weeks.

The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan has highlighted the pressing need to improve retention across the NHS to help ensure we keep more staff in the workforce, increase overall staffing levels and, in turn, deliver better patient care.

It sets out an aim of reducing turnover from the current level of 11 per cent to levels last achieved pre-pandemic of around 7-8 per cent. Turnover is affected by a range of factors, including all aspects of staff experience. A positive organisational culture, good line management and a good experience at work means staff are more likely to want to stay in work.

But staff engagement activity can also have an essential role to play in supporting retention. Research from the University of Surrey has shown high levels of staff engagement are associated with lower-than-average staff turnover. While our own analysis of NHS Staff survey data also supports this, indicating that below average levels of engagement are strongly associated with higher-than-average turnover.

"Below average levels of engagement are strongly associated with higher-than-average turnover."

The Long-Term Workforce Plan recommends organisations make best use of staff engagement data and review their listening tools to ensure they are effective. These actions can be combined to better support retention and a range of data can also be cross-referenced to understand the issues that are leading staff to consider leaving.

Organisations can look at leaver rates and compare these with data on overall staff experience. In particular, comparisons on known 'push factors' such as line manager support, discrimination and health and wellbeing can be a good guide to areas where further work is needed to help keep staff in their roles.

Conversely, the areas within trusts which demonstrate good staff experience and lower turnover or intention to leave will be areas to learn from. Other relevant data here can include employee relations cases, Freedom to Speak Up referrals and violence incidents.

Where retention issues are identified, many trusts have used specific engagement activity via ‘listening exercises’ to better understand the issues behind the high turnover. Tools used can include facilitated conversations, bespoke questions in surveys and techniques such as appreciative inquiry – using questions to build a vision for the future, focusing on past and potential future successes.

Through these specific listening exercises, trusts can both boost engagement and identify retention issues to act on. Trusts in Manchester, Birmingham and Oxford have all shared details about their successful approaches to improving retention through listening and acting on feedback, resulting in a range of positive outcomes.

"Through these specific listening exercises, trusts can both boost engagement and identify retention issues to act on."

The Long-Term Workforce Plan also recommends trusts have ‘stay conversations’ with staff on a regular basis to understand what would support staff to stay and thrive in their organisation. Again, we have seen many examples of trusts having such conversations with staff, either in particular areas of the organisation or specifically with those identified at risk of leaving, which have shown positive results. We’ll be sharing learning from all the above examples over the coming months.

We’re keen to keep hearing from trusts about experiences of using staff engagement to support and improve staff retention, and to gather more information about how and why staff can be encouraged to stay. Please do get in touch to share your lessons learned, whether of positive shifts or ongoing challenges.

Taking part in open conversations and feeling listened to can make the difference in colleagues choosing to stay with the NHS. Putting staff engagement at the forefront of your retention activities could be the key to making your efforts a success.

If you’d like to learn more about NHS Employers’ staff engagement programme and how you can get involved in our staff engagement network, please email Steven Weeks.