What’s eating NHS comms?

As we continue along this seemingly endless Nick Drake album of a pandemic working life I spoke with some of the key people in our #CommsLeads network to try and understand the big issues facing NHS communicators this winter.

There was a remarkable, unprompted consensus on what people were thinking about as the main challenges and issues, so hopefully this will remind us that nobody is alone.

Here’s a summary (in no particular order) of the 10 issues occupying the hive mind of NHS comms:

#1 Balancing work

As the pandemic moves into yet another phase we go from the fight against a single enemy to the war on many fronts. Across the county comms teams are thinking about the many other strategic priorities facing the NHS and how they prioritise work to try and cover issues that have been on the backburner during Covid19. They’re now returning with a bang as recovery and ‘business as usual’ comms return to the schedules.

There’s also a feeling that the last two years has seen lots of discretionary effort with people working around the clock and pulling out all the stops to cope with a genuine crisis. This approach can now be seen as the norm for even run of the mill projects which is probably not desirable, healthy or effective.

#2 Winter

Winter is coming….they said in July and it’s abundantly clear that NHS winter came very hard and early this year. How the system is going to cope, how exhausted staff can be supported and how communications with the public can help are all massive issues facing us right now.

Sadly, a big part of this is about violence and aggression against staff which is reaching endemic proportions across the country. One clinical colleague said recently that we’ve gone from “clap to slap” with the doorstep celebrations of the summer a distant memory.

One of our own matrons was on C4 news in this emotional piece https://www.channel4.com/news/people-dont-see-us-as-humans-nhs-matron-on-abuse-faced-by-staff

#3 Internal comms

One of the biggest pandemic watersheds was the success of internal comms, with workers recently rating ‘communications from my employer’ as their top news source.

Internal comms has been more important than ever. Consistent, clear messages during a time of crisis have been vital, especially in the NHS. Some suggest that the pandemic has perhaps fundamentally changed that relationship we have with employees.

However, we need to remember that staff are also the public and get their own information, confidence and fears from a range of news sources, not just the things that are released officially by their employer.

Many also wonder if people are now overloaded, reaching message fatigue and simply tuning out. How do we reach more remote audiences and clinical teams that are busier than ever before?

#4 Systems and partnerships

The pandemic has seen the public sector working closer than ever with traditional boundaries smashed away. How will that be sustained as things get back to normal as the integrated care systems and provider collaboratives come to the fore?

#5 Resilience and mental health…again

Session after session that I’ve been in people have talked about a looming mental health crisis and a profession under pressure. At the last pre-covid NHS comms session we talked about what a huge problem this was for communicators who are often working under high pressure. Two years into a pandemic and this is even worse. What more can we do for our teams and each other?

#6 Behaviour change

The skills, science and techniques of behaviour change have been examined and refined in the real-life laboratory of the past 2 years. Much has been learned but there’s still a way to go.

#7 Organisational strategy vs operational problems

The pandemic has earned communications much respect and credence, with many feeling more respected and in demand. This comes with additional pressure to perform and shape board strategy but there are still thorny operational issues that need to be cracked every day.

#8 Expectations and resource

This extra responsibility has come with additional expectations and demands. Understanding how this can and should be resourced feels key.

#9 Green plan

This is going to be the next huge, existential challenge for the NHS. There’s loads going on but understanding how to engage staff and public in this will be a major challenge in the coming years.

#10 Career development and future proofing skills

Lots of people feel like they’ve missed out on all the usual training, networking and development during the past two years. It seems to have been particularly hard for those entering the profession and adapting to everything being online or senior people focusing on a single issue without the time to learn.

Possibly more questions than answers but I hope this is a useful list. Huge thanks to all the comms pros across the NHS who contributed.

What have I missed?

Keep a hold. 

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