A defining memory of the past year for many NHS staff will be 2023’s nurses, junior doctor, and consultant strikes. While simplistic media coverage has tended to focus on the issue of pay, the reasons behind this year’s strikes run deeper.
A few years ago, a consultant colleague showed me a Christmas card he had received from another department. In it was a handwritten message thanking him for the great service he provided and how his hard work meant that patients with suspected cancer were being diagnosed more quickly. After reading the message he said, ‘this will keep me going for another year.’
This simple statement illustrates why feeling valued at work is an incredibly powerful motivator, especially in healthcare. This does not detract from the importance of financial compensation and its role in making employees feel valued. It just means that non-financial incentives also play a key role in motivating employees to remain with an organisation like the NHS, as long as recruiting minimums, like salary, are met.
This is why resolving the root causes of heathcare workers’ strikes needs to go deeper than fixing the pay dispute – the Government needs to win back trust and find a way to make the NHS workforce feel valued again.
So, looking beyond pay, what are the non-financial factors that motivate those who work in healthcare? A study by Dutton et al, which looked at housekeepers working in hospitals, highlighted the importance of ‘felt worth.’ This concept is similar to the idea of self-esteem, but where individuals also gauge their value through how they are viewed by others. Recognition and positive feedback all contributed positively to this concept of ‘felt worth’, which in turn motivated employees.
If healthcare workers relate their self-worth to how they are viewed, can we assume that years of negative press coverage has had a significant impact on their morale, performance and recruitment? If so, we may be seeing the real-world consequences of this play out in the nurses’ strike, as healthcare workers start to confront their lack of felt worth within the NHS.
When it comes to valuing its employees, what lessons could healthcare be learning from the commercial sector, where traditional nine-to-five jobs are becoming a thing of the past? Across the world, we have seen how the pattern of working practice has changed across commercial sectors. However, this change has also been accompanied by a growing movement examining how organisations value, reward and incentivise their employees.
In his best-selling book, ‘Work Rules,’ Laszlo Bock, head of People Operations at Google, talks about the importance of both financial and non-financial incentives. He found that promoting a culture of rewarding, valuing and empowering employees directly translated to better company performance.
Looking at the current climate of the NHS it might seem impossible that a similar attitude could be adopted there, but without a radical change in the way that we think about rewarding our healthcare workers we are going to lose them.
As well as addressing pay issues, the Government and the NHS need to start considering how they can start offering non-financial incentives to healthcare workers as part of a wider program to increase their felt worth. Incentives could include increased support for workers’ training, career development programs to help workers feel secure in their jobs, and avenues for both public and professional appreciation to ensure that they feel supported and valued. Combining financial and non-financial incentives is key to finding a long-term solution to the NHS’s staffing crisis and stopping the seemingly endless cycle of pay disputes and strikes.
The simple fact is this, if we expect to have a world-class health system then we need to recruit high-calibre staff and understand what motivates and incentivises them. To ignore the impact of the current negative climate on our workforce is naïve. In the end, we may find that a little gratitude goes a long way.