In the run up to the 72nd birthday of the NHS this weekend, I’ve been thinking about what makes the NHS such a celebrated institution, and for me it always comes down to its people.

Looking after our people has been our number one priority during the pandemic crisis. When I became a trust CEO, I remember a very wise mentor telling me that the ‘soft stuff’ is the hard stuff and never has this been as true as during the pandemic.

Caring is one of the Innovation Agency’s core values and our fantastic staff have lived this value in the care they have shown for one another and for our customers, who are drawn from a range of sectors and who have been affected differently by the pandemic. This has resulted in an outpouring of dedication and service to support customers in whatever way we can to meet their needs, and this has been echoed across all the AHSNs.

We’ve benefited from the many offers made by digital companies to help the wellbeing of NHS staff, with innovations such as Sleepio, Neurolove, the Mind Map and others. These are companies we’ve supported to deploy their products into the organisations we serve and now more than ever, we can see how necessary they are to colleagues feeling the strain of living and working through the pandemic.

Improving our leadership culture

As a senior public sector leader I was quite alarmed at the outset of COVID-19 when I was informed by our staff that we needed to set up coffee break times, celebration events, community circles, daily staff check-ins and longer team meetings. I worried that we would be seen as an organisation that was not being productive.

Out of work time our staff have been running and attending art classes and AHSN Chief Officers have been taking part in a bi-weekly quiz on a Thursday evening after the Clap for Carers celebration. We don’t discuss business, we connect with each other, discuss how we are all feeling and work through some very difficult quiz questions!

Looking back, these activities have been essential for strengthening teams and having the ‘water cooler/corridor’ conversations that have been missed during the lockdown. All these activities have supported people to go the extra mile above and beyond what their job description required of them, to meet the new challenges created by the pandemic.

We’ve seconded people into national roles, we’ve set up a COVID-19 business assessment service, we’ve supported our customers to deploy great products into the system, we’ve worked with our councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships on economic recovery – and as the needs change, so do we.

When we surveyed staff about our new working arrangements, their responses gave us clear messages about what we needed to do as an organisation so we acted on this.

Never be fooled into thinking staff welfare is the pink and fluffy stuff that we do around the edges. Always hold true to the principle of ‘you said, we did’ with staff. It’s key to everything we achieve as a health and care service. As leaders we need to embrace this.

The purpose of AHSNs is to support our systems and partners to make positive change, whatever circumstances they find themselves in. I’ve structured this blog under two principles of the Interim NHS People Plan, which recognise that being the Best Place to Work for our staff and improving our Leadership Culture is key to achieving great results for our customers.

As we strive to be the Best Place to Work for all our staff, whatever their ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability or religion, the words of Maya Angelou ring true – ‘you may not control all the events that happen to you but you can decide not to be reduced by them’.

Looking after our staff has helped us to better respond to our customers and provide the tools they need to deal with the pandemic crisis.

Follow Liz on Twitter: @MearLiz