IC HUB

The NHS: The ultimate communication challenge?

March 26, 2018

Andrew Parsonage has worked in internal communications across a wide range of sectors and organisations over the last 18 years, and with companies such as the Post Office Group, Sainsbury’s and Nationwide Building Society. He’s currently Communications Manager for North Bristol NHS Trust’s IT Division.

“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

These words, uttered by Winston Churchill on becoming Prime Minister in 1940, resonate with me as I contemplate my latest communication role. They also felt like a fitting starting point for this blog post. We’re at the beginning of something, the foot of a mountain. I have no easy route up or cutting edge technique to offer here. But what I can share is insight into a world I’ve just entered, and a challenge which you might be able to identify with.

I’ve worked for some household names before but nothing like the NHS, and certainly not an organisation so familiar and under extraordinary pressure. The NHS was hardly out of the headlines in January, and whilst the issues reported were hardly new it started to feel like we’d reached a tipping point. It was into this environment – and North Bristol NHS Trust (NBT) – that I entered.

The sheer scale of the NHS is reflected by NBT. It’s an organisation within an organisation, employing over 8000 staff spread across several sites. My job? To help their IT Division better engage staff as the Trust further integrates new technology and digital solutions into healthcare delivery.

Two months in it’s not quite been a case of ‘forget everything you know’ – maybe more a reboot. So what in particular have I’ve learned?

  • ‘Little victories’. I had a reality check recently when staging two sessions in the main hospital building. Both potentially had multiple attendees. In the end both only had 5 people show up. What I took from this was that;
    • the best conversations are more likely ‘on the shopfloor’ where people work,
    • if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, engaging a huge organisation like this will be more effective at individual/team level. So, if those five people left both meetings better informed (and with free chocolate), see it as a little victory and one to build on.
  • Make messaging ultra-focused. Operational pressures mean that staff are unlikely to engage unless the subject matter affects them. So my internal mantra has quickly become ‘how will this help staff?’ and ‘how will this support patient care?
  • No shame in going back to basics. The push for greater digitisation has still to apply to staff communication channels here. So, rather than get frustrated, accept that’s how it’ll be for now and revert to tried and trusted methods – (hard copy) newsletters, email and meetings. Unfashionable? Maybe, but done well and this is how to reach staff.

There’s a fourth learning – which is not to feel overwhelmed at the foot of this engagement mountain. Yes, the NHS is a hugely complex organisation under serious pressure. But as I put on my lanyard in the morning and walk through the state-of-the-art Southmead Hospital, it’s a reminder that I work alongside amazing individuals who are all dedicated one way or another to making people better. And I’m here to help them do that.

Tears, toil and sweat? It’s what the NHS runs on, so why should my job be any different?

Time to roll up the sleeves…

Operational pressures mean that staff are unlikely to engage unless the subject matter affects them. So my internal mantra has quickly become ‘how will this help staff?’ and ‘how will this support patient care?’