Celebration not Resignation: Retaining Top Talent in 2022

By Nicola McQueen, Chief Executive Officer, NHS Professionals

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In my last blog I talked about the benefits of getting outside for ‘walk and talk’ meetings, or just simply walking. A benefit I'm really noticing is how it changes my mindset.

A good example is the other day, I was doing detailed work on my laptop all morning. This work was important and I needed to do it. But when I went for a walk at lunchtime, my perspective widened. It shifted from operational to strategic.

One area of strategy I’ve thinking a lot about recently is workforce turnover. Right now, there’s a buzz phrase around this called ‘The Great Resignation’. I’m going to confront this here because it’s getting a lot of attention right now, and for good reason.  

If you haven’t come across the phrase yet, ‘The Great Resignation’ refers to reported increases worldwide in the number of people quitting their jobs during the pandemic. They’re either moving to a similar job elsewhere, or sometimes switching careers altogether.

According to some reports, resignation levels are well above average, and predicted to rise further as and when the pandemic comes to an end. As a result, workforce experts are starting to look at this trend much more closely.

A big theme in the discussions is mental health and wellbeing. The pandemic has been with us for nearly two years and in that time it’s driven us to work harder than ever. It’s made many people re-asses their career paths and work-life balance. This reassessment can be a hugely positive process, but as the saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs. Making big changes involves disruption and, in some cases, resignation.

In our case at NHS Professionals, we’ve had to sprint to get thousands of extra healthcare staff on to the front line. We’ve also accelerated other major workstreams. We’re proud of what we’ve achieved and we remain positive – it’s what we are here to do.

However, I can’t pretend it hasn’t been tough and there remains much work to be done. We’ve done our best to look after our teams during this exceptional period, but I think the pandemic has certainly had an impact. We are seeing some resignations, more than I would like, and this is something the Board and I are looking at very closely. As ever, we are committed to keeping our people and teams positive and with us for as long as possible, through good times, and bad times.

So what can organisations do to retain their best people in this period of turbulence? I think there are three key elements to this.

The first is - you guessed it – flexibility.

Ensuring staff have flexibility built into their roles brings big benefits. By more flexibility, I mean giving conscientious staff the option to ‘flex’ their working days, hours, locations and set-ups so they achieve a healthy balance between life and work, while still maintaining clear boundaries between the two. I also mean providing lifelong career paths and quality learning opportunities for people who wish to work flexibly.

One upside of the pandemic is there’s now much more attention on flexible working. It’s becoming clearer to everyone that workplace flexibility will attract and retain the best people. I read an article the other day that talked about creating a new culture of ‘individualised working conditions’, and I think that’s right.

The second key ingredient is mobility.

This is about creating opportunities for staff to make meaningful progress within the business. Of course, internal promotion and change opportunities come up quite naturally in an organisation. You could argue it’s built into the system already.

But I’m talking about a much more proactive approach as we come out of the pandemic. This is where leaders really take responsibility for setting up creative professional development programmes for their teams, along with high-quality internal career paths. This applies to organisations with members too, like NHS Professionals.

It’s normal for people to want to move on sometimes. But ideally, we want to keep their skills, talent and experience with us for as long as we can. We should aim to protect our corporate ‘memory’ by setting up ways people can exchange and share their knowledge within the business so it stays there. We certainly don’t want our best people to leave because they felt let down by a lack of opportunity. They should leave on a high, not under a cloud.

For me, the ideal state is to create a culture which champions flexibility and mobility and supports staff asking for both of these. If organisations can achieve that, then I think they can slow down the resignation rate and normalise turnover to pre-pandemic levels.

The final key ingredient to staff retention, in my view, is energy.

For me, positive energy in the workplace is such a precious resource because as long as you have it, you can make progress. When good people leave your organisation, they take energy with them and in theory, the organisation is weaker. But it’s worth remembering that energy flows in, as well as out.

New staff usually bring a powerful wave of creative energy with them and this brings real strength and opportunity. This is one reason why it’s so important properly welcome and onboard people when they join us, so that we fan the fire of their enthusiasm. We then need to go on supporting them with health and wellbeing resources so they burn bright, but don’t burnout.

‘The Great Celebration’

It remains to be seen whether turnover rates will climb further this year, as some predict. My own feeling is that we should act now to shift the focus from ‘resignation’ to ‘celebration’. We need to make sure we have the right culture, plans and processes in place to truly celebrate our people and their skills, so they feel valued, grow with the business, and stay on board. 

By celebrating our teams consistently, we’ll better prepared for whatever comes our way in the years ahead.