Everyday, we hear that the NHS is losing staff and Brexit will bring an unprecedented shortage of nurses.

What we don’t hear about is looking after your staff. They will be more inclined to be happy at work, stay at work and pass compassion on through the care of their patients.

Over a 30month period I managed to reduce sickness from 17% to 8% for a frontline service consisting of 100+ staff through compassionate leadership.

For more than a decade this service suffered with high sickness anywhere up to 22%. There had been a high turnover of managers over a number of years. At the end of my second week a staff member approached me in the car park and said ‘We’ll see you off within 6 months’.

In the 12 months before I started the job, the service fought off closure where staff faced redundancy or redeployment. One of my objectives was to address the sickness issue and bring it under control. Senior managers and HR gave me new policies and believed they would fix the problem and having a few staff dismissed would reduce the sickness.

After a few months, I realised that enforcing HR policies was not making the intended impact. By now I had got to know a number of staff and had an insight into the culture, staff morale and history of what had happened before I arrived. I felt that staff had lost trust in management & the organisation. I needed to rebuild that trust. I chose to manage all sickness in order to get to know staff and understand what kept them from work. I was saddened to hear staff say that no one cared for their troubles, no one listened, no one believed them. I had to prove I cared and believed them.

I introduced protected staff drop-in times on Thursday mornings for any staff who wanted to see me. At the start & end of every day I walked round the clinical settings talking to staff about work and how they were. I was genuinely interested in their work and lives, offering support or help where I could. I wrote a staff newsletter every month which included the celebrations of staff outside of work, for example, weddings and births. Writing over 100 Christmas cards to every staff member took hours and resulted in writer’s cramp. But taking the effort to personalise each card for them and their family was very worthwhile when I saw them read it. I valued them as people first and their commitment to the service and its patients second. It became the norm to give flowers and a telephone call to staff on compassionate leave or for the birth of a child.

As time passed, word had got around that the ‘new manager was not as bad as people thought’. But I did have some criticism from higher up about my priorities. With such a large staff force, it was a time consuming process. Some questioned my leadership and my level of involvement in managing sickness for all staff regardless of banding or role. However, I saw the staff as people who needed support and respect from their manager. That is what equality and diversity is, isn’t it???

Over a thirty month period, sickness levels fell from 17% to a low of 8%, the lowest it had ever been. I achieved what no one else had been able to do by being compassionate to staff. Interestingly, during this period, only one person was dismissed through the HR policy.

I demonstrated that compassionate leadership improves patient care, service performance, staff morale and sustainable staffing. One of the greatest achievements I felt I made with the staff was seeing around 60 of them celebrating their first ever service wide Christmas party. That night I saw staff enjoying themselves, being proud of the work and care they had delivered as a team. A number of staff thanked me for making their work enjoyable again. I feel proud and privileged to have made such a positive impact on their lives.

Gavin Portier

Nurse and Head of Quality in the NHS