Blog post

There's no secret to staff engagement

A blog by Steven Weeks exploring the lessons that can be taken from the 2022 NHS Staff Survey and how they can be applied across the service.
Steven Weeks

9 June 2023

In this blog, Steven Weeks, policy manager at NHS Employers, shares his view that there are no secrets to good staff engagement, but instead, a number of steps that organisations can take alongside a wider strategy to improve staff experience.  

NHS Employers is often asked what the secret is to improving staff engagement and in the past, we have always answered “there is no secret”. But there are a series of steps you can take which do appear to have a positive impact. These were summarised in our Seven Suggestions page, which explores some lessons taken from organisations that have improved their NHS Staff Survey scores.

The recommendations focused on what might be termed staff engagement activity, such as making best use of surveys and other methods for listening to staff; creating opportunities for dialogue with leaders and building confidence that issues raised will be acted on to create a positive feedback cycle.

From what I've seen, the experience of organisations that saw a rise in staff engagement scores in the NHS Staff Survey this year suggests these types of approaches still have a positive impact, and we will be sharing more information in forthcoming case studies.

However, it has become increasingly clear that levels of staff engagement are not just fostered by staff engagement activity. Improvement in staff engagement appears to go hand-in-hand with improvement in staff experience overall, as measured by the NHS People Promise indicators.

When we looked at evidence from this year’s NHS Staff Survey, it was clear that organisations that had improved engagement scores had not dealt with staff engagement in isolation. Actions to improve engagement had been developed as part of wider interventions to improve all-round staff experience and, in most cases, part of a broader strategy to change the overall culture of the organisation. Improving staff engagement had been a key aim but not the only one.

For the most improved trusts, there was a notable link between improvement in scores for staff engagement and improved scores in wider NHS People Promise indicators. This was the case for the indicator on having A Voice That Counts, which includes some of the same questions and measures a key dimension of staff engagement, and it was also the case for the indicator on Compassionate and Inclusive Leadership. For example, all bar one of the top ten most improved were also in the top ten for improvement on staff engagement.

There was a lot of similarities between trusts that had improved on the teamworking indicator and on staff engagement, and to a lesser extent on both health and wellbeing and flexible working.

Colleagues at East Kent Hospitals University NHS Foundation Trust have transformed the way NHS Staff Survey data is presented, making it more discoverable and accessible. This year the trust sought to take this a step further, using sophisticated people analytics to explore the fundamental question we were asking: what drives staff engagement? 

The trust identified a strong link between measures of autonomy, staff voice, compassionate leadership and team working. But also found clear and perhaps more surprising relationships between staff engagement and the We are always learning and Reward and Recognition indicators. 

Taking this analysis a step further, the trust explored the relationships between the survey sub-promises, sub-themes and at a question level. The findings showed strong correlations with key non-staff engagement domains like raising concerns, the stress dimension of health and wellbeing, line management and compassionate leadership. 

The trust’s aim was to provide people with the secret to improving staff engagement through evidence-based question-level insights. The results showed the strongest associations centred around creating a climate where staff can raise concerns safely, feel supported to achieve their potential and where individual differences are respected.

The good news is that generally the wider the action a trust takes to improve staff experience measures the greater the positive impact on staff engagement levels, and we have some good ideas on which areas have the most impact. The challenge is finding the most effective approaches and putting these into practice.

It has been interesting to look at this data in terms of the overall NHS Staff Survey results and data analysed within an individual hospital trust. Conclusions are tentative, as we have not looked at the whole NHS Staff Survey dataset. But it does appear that progress on improved staff engagement is linked to the improvement in the full range of staff experience.

A broader understanding of the factors underpinning this link should help organisations develop their overall staff experience approach and focus on interventions with most impact on engagement.

More information on the East Kent Hospitals data analysis is available on request and feedback on these issues is welcome. We will be exploring these issues further with colleagues in forthcoming networking events.