A coaching approach to supporting staff wellbeing in difficult working circumstances

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15 Dec 2021

Alison carter

Dr Alison Carter, Principal Research Fellow 

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Primary care workers are in the news again this week, as they are charged with delivering jabs to the nation at a scale and pace not previously seen. Phone lines in GP practices haven’t stopped ringing and some pharmacies are running low on masks and lateral flow tests. This is on top of several months of exhausted GPs, dentists, optometrists, and pharmacists getting a hard time as the public want pre-Covid ‘business as usual’ services back.

Primary care has been one of the toughest sectors to work in over the last 20 months. So I was thrilled that one of our IES clients recently scooped their top industry award, the 'workforce initiative of the year' for their Looking After You Too programme which delivered virtual, personalised coaching support to 5,400 frontline primary care staff over 18 months, as they responded to the pandemic. The coaching is designed to support staff to develop practical strategies to cope with their situation and stay well. It’s not often that a staff health and wellbeing programme wins a mainstream industry award even though the relationship between employee wellbeing and individual/organisational performance is well evidenced.

The importance of staff wellbeing initiatives is greater than ever, for the staff themselves as well as the ability of organisations to continue to provide essential services. More unusual was that the winning entry was a coaching programme. What inspiration can HR professionals in other sectors draw from this award-winning programme to help staff wellbeing in what continues to be difficult working circumstances?

The awards judges said they particularly liked that “this intervention removed hierarchy and permissions, making it accessible to all who needed to access it…This added another layer for a workforce who are dispersed and could be at increased risk of experiencing isolation throughout this time.”

Removing permissions and hierarchy are key to achieving a truly whole workforce offer. The design team in the NHS started by thinking about how they could help every individual person whichever bit of the workforce they worked in. In pre-Covid workplaces coaching was targeted at elite or select groups and most coaching was part of a leadership, talent management or diversity initiative. Coaching is a method that is flexible in pursuit of different purposes and there have traditionally been many barriers to accessing it across sectors. Usually it was competitive, you had to fill in application forms, get your line manager to co-sign, get someone to authorise payment and then you had to fit in with a strict timetable of sessions.  Looking After You Too was something of a trailblazer with no barriers to access. Just an online booking form and a virtual coach is allocated to you. The service is self- nomination and no passwords are required.

This was a wellbeing intervention that works. IES knows this as we conducted an evaluation of the service. We found a significant increase in staff wellbeing and resilience after coaching. Staff who weren't coached saw a deterioration in their levels of wellbeing and resilience. Here’s an infographic that presents key findings about the impact of the service for staff wellbeing. Beyond the evaluation, building in evidence collection, reflection, improvement, and flexibility into the initiative was a feature of the winning programme.

You can’t get everything perfect first time. Tweaks have been made, based on feedback and data. The service is designed to quickly scale up and down availability of coaching sessions to match demand. As the pandemic progresses the type of conversations needed have become clearer. Wellbeing of the workforce remains core, but companion services have been added to allow people to focus on how they can help the wellbeing of colleagues and working within their own team and between teams locally. The sum of all these enabled individual workers is a more agile, change- capable whole primary care workforce. That’s a good thing when as a population, and at incredibly short notice, we are relying on them to be capable of changing their plans and put their feet firmly on the vaccine rollout accelerator to deliver on a Prime Minister’s promise of a booster jab to all adults who want one.

Finally, and here's the really big thing, the intervention went from idea to launch in one month. How did the design team do it? With a very small core team, no internal hierarchy, developing and rallying behind a vision, listening to staff motivated by a passion to help every worker to cope with the wellbeing crisis likely to play out across primary care, continual feedback loops improvement and deferring to the expert in the room not the boss. Big jumps forward. That's a textbook example of agile team leadership. That’s an HR/ People team mirroring ways of working and is now routinely expected of its service delivery staff.

You could argue that throwing open the coaching doors to all comers is an ‘experiment’ that can only be afforded when we are talking about frontline critical workers during a national crisis. Most organisations have been incredibly agile during the pandemic. Strategies to mitigate the negative impact of the pandemic on employee wellbeing should be prioritised to make staff and organisations more resilient in the face of continuing uncertainty. We are seeing a big shift away from HR targeting interventions to an elite few. Instead, we are seeing more and more interventions about the whole workforce, providing a range of offers and trusting them to access what they need, when they need it. A prerequisite of change-capable staff is a minimal level of personal wellbeing

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.