Leadership Viewpoints – Experience of Senior Leaders

Many of us have reflected on the last two years and the experiences we have been through during the Covid-19 pandemic. For senior leaders in particular, reflection and recognition of the journey travelled, both for themselves but also for their teams and colleagues, is often really important. We’ve spoken to 4 NHS chief executives who reflect on the very start of the pandemic in the below videos which are split into a variety of different themes.

The initial impact of Covid

Initial Impact of COVID

Speaker 1 [00:00:08] What our staff were dealing with was just absolutely, we’d never seen it before.

Speaker 2 [00:00:14] The stress of the first six weeks, I mean, I really I did personally feel we didn’t know what we were in.

Speaker 3 [00:00:21] The sense of pace in which we were being asked to work. So for me, it was, you know, building what, 12000 hospital beds across the country in a really short number of weeks.

Speaker 2 [00:00:33] The adrenaline was probably running and just in very much sort of incident mode.

Speaker 4 [00:00:39] I’m a fixer I fix things and when you don’t really know what’s going to happen and how bad it’s going to be and you know what the solutions are, that’s really quite troubling.

Speaker 1 [00:00:48] My job is to keep things steady in order not to scream and shout, but just to create an environment where we recognise what people were doing.

Speaker 2 [00:00:59] It feels like it’s been an incredible sort of responsibility actually being the chief executive of a health providing organisation through a pandemic in London.

Speaker 1 [00:01:12] I’ve been here since the 1st of April 20, 2020, so I don’t know anything else other than being a chief executive in a COVID pandemic.

Speaker 3 [00:01:23] I worked on the Nightingale programme as the director of the Nightingale programme, so leading the setup of those facilities right across the country.

Speaker 4 [00:01:31] Nobody wants to let anybody down and I think in these times as a leader, you really do feel that you’ve got to be able to provide something, you’ve got to keep your staff safe. You’ve got to be able to give confidence and hope. And you know, that gets to you at times, so it doesn’t get to you I think there’s probably something wrong.

The emotional impact of the pandemic

Emotional Impact of the Pandemic

Speaker 1 [00:00:07] We were the first organisation in greater manchester to lose a member of staff and I found, see I’m getting upset now, you’re taken the organisation with you and it was probably, I’d only been here 10 days. She was well known in the organisation and we need, I wanted to make sure that people heard it from me. They didn’t hear it from somebody else in Bolton, from the press, so I composed an email with our comms lead and sent it out to the whole of the workforce. It meant a lot to me to write it, and I wanted to make sure it meant a lot to people who received it. So that was probably one, that was the hardest thing I had to do.

Speaker 2 [00:00:50] Very sadly, one of our porters died. He’d been here a long, long time, and he was known as The General. I thought I would go to the Porter’s lodge and just really be with the team there, and then one of his colleagues came in and was so distraught, he was wailing, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody wailing quite like that and there was a moment where I thought, you know, actually, just what do you do, you know.

Speaker 1 [00:01:23] In that first week how to sign a number of letters because other staff had died, too. So that was probably the hardest thing, and I remember sitting here in my office going, I’m not sure I signed up for this.

Caring for staff during Covid

Caring for staff during COVID

Speaker 1 [00:00:07] We’ve always had, as a priority, caring for our patients, but actually through the pandemic equally important, if not maybe even slightly more important, is caring for your staff.

Speaker 2 [00:00:22] And the responsibility and let’s call it out the guilt that goes with that. The significant guilt that goes with the fact that we are putting our people through something that is really difficult for them.

Speaker 1 [00:00:35] Having gone onto the ward and seeing a nurse who had just sadly been with somebody who died and they held the phone for them while they were saying goodbye to their relatives. I mean, as a nurse, I I can’t imagine how hard that is.

Speaker 2 [00:00:52] I’ve got staff at the moment that are redeployed from my hospital to an acute trust, you know, staff that have not worked in ITU or in critical care for perhaps 15 and 20 years that have volunteered to go and do that. I mean, wow, I mean, brilliant, amazing stuff but the responsibility that goes with that is, you know, it’s that they’re, these are my colleagues, you know, my friends, some of them, it’s not just a faceless workforce thing.

Speaker 1 [00:01:19] I sat with somebody on the respiratory ward here and the experience they’d over five weeks through the second wave, the two of us volunteers. She thought I knew how difficult it had been on her ward at a particular time with staffing challenges. And actually, I had not realised her lived experience at that time. It made me feel pretty awful and made think about lots of other things as well, I might add. But in that moment it was, it was, it was very rich because she shared with me what she had been through, and I then have been able to subsequently absolutely check in with, what have we got around that what’s happening here what’s related to that and also actually ultimately think about rewards, incentives. How do we replenish the staff on that ward, how do we help them recover.

Engagement and communication during the pandemic

Engagement & communication during COVID

Speaker 1 [00:00:07] I like people. I hate being in my office. I like going out and talking to people and seeing what it’s like to work in our organisation and what it’s like to be a patient in our organisation. That’s the thing that I find the most difficult because I can’t do what I’ve always done, which is just turn up like Mr. Ben in places and say, how are you doing.

Speaker 2 [00:00:29] We’ve really upped the rhythm of our standard communications role using Teams with staff question times and managers meetings.

Speaker 3 [00:00:39] I really miss not having people in a room so on Teams meetings and Zoom calls, I’ve tended to work out ways to help people interact more. So whether that’s using things like Slido or asking for feedback in the chats, getting people to rate something because it allows you to interact. It just actually adds a wider dimension to the conversation, which I think for most of us as people we sort of need at this time.

Speaker 2 [00:01:10] The second thing we work really hard on is no guilt of working at home. So this sense that working at home used to be a bit of a skive, a bit of a nobody knew what people were really doing and also potentially, for hospitals particularly, but other services too a sense of second class citizenship. So the important people are in the hospital, the not important people are working at home and for the people working at home, they can feel a real guilt around that. So we will not have that, it’s not right, and we are working as well as we are because the people at home are doing their jobs incredibly effectively.

Workload pressure during Covid

Workload pressure during COVID

Speaker 1 [00:00:07] Obviously, COVID, the NHS has been the top item on the news, you know, day in, day out for the best part of a year, and actually I found that difficult because it’s, it’s felt at times like psychologically living in work with no break from it, you know, impossible almost cognitively to get away from it. Even my parents, really, when I ring them, work, the conversation turns very quickly to vaccination, to work, you know, to hospitals, to intensive care. I’ve noticed a real thing about people working seven days a week as a much more normal past time for a short period absolutely possible. But when those days become weeks and those weeks become months, and now we’re into weeks, becoming months, becoming years, I want us to think very differently really, about how how you sustain your energy.

Looking after your health and wellbeing

Looking after your health and wellbeing

Speaker 1 [00:00:07] The visible leadership side of this role, I felt very important to be part of with staff, but actually we very quickly decided we would do one day a week working from home and that was to enable each of us individually, including me, just to maybe have a day where I don’t smile quite as much. Maybe I have a day where I, where I just, you know, from the top up, I look right, but from the bottom down, maybe that’s when you wear your socks.

Speaker 2 [00:00:38] Fresh air has been a big thing and movement. So one of the things we’re all doing at the moment is that a lot of things most of our lives are virtual, as this thing is, is virtual us. It’s actually pretty exhausting, actually. So I think coming to terms with sitting down in one place is actually really tiring and it’s not good for you and so when we started to get into the rhythm of having to do a lot of virtual meetings, finding the value of actually just being able to go for a walk, get some fresh air, get some daylight, it’s nice and spring like outside here today after several weeks of snow and frost that makes a difference on your outlook and how you see things.

Speaker 1 [00:01:20] I found walking and being really mindful and looking at things and seeing, seeing the nature, and other people have said this, you notice at like at the moment, the daffodils are coming up, the crocuses are coming up and I used my phone to capture moments just in pictures that actually just have an ability to give me a lift.

Speaker 3 [00:01:42] I do yoga every day, that kind of helps me meditate before I come to work. I have a dog that who is absolutely bonkers, she’s only two now. She really does keep me busy. I love walking and I love just being outside and looking at the environment. That’s almost my mindfulness.

Speaker 1 [00:02:03] Sometimes it’s just nice to get up, move away from a team screen and do a 30 minute sprint around the park. Then I come back and it’s all fine, you know, I think I think you’ve got to build in things that just replenish you.

Speaker 4 [00:02:21] What I have particularly focussed on is when I’ve been watching a film or for me, because I watch a lot of basketball and football with my two teenage boys that when I’m doing that, I am totally focussed on that activity. The phone is away as are their phones because I think it’s good for them too and and we focus for a couple of hours totally, you know, wrapped in the machinations of special meetings, basketball or Man City, my beloved football team.

Speaker 1 [00:02:51] And the other thing I do every Monday is I buy a bunch of flowers and I have them in my office and it is just literally these are very personal things that I find just keep me balanced

Speaker 2 [00:03:04] At the beginning of Covid I got into a good rhythm of exercising on a morning before I came into work, which helped clear my head [unintelligible] and in all of that, I found that I quite like history podcasts. Just stuff to get your head away from the things, you know, that you’re stewing on and working on all the time.

Speaker 1 [00:03:28] Especially during the week. I tend to go to bed reasonably early and get up early, but actually it really, really helps. So even if you have a bit of a low day, a low few days, actually go to bed early, eat regularly, all those really things that you think. But actually, suddenly the world feels much better.

Speaker 4 [00:03:48] Find your way of switching off, whatever that is. For some people, it is at five o’clock, switching off until the following morning. For those people like me, that like to kind of not let things, you know, like to know what’s there. Manage that. No, you do it, but manage the way that you do it, particularly around bedtimes.

Speaker 1 [00:04:08] I also think you have to schedule in leave, and that is incredibly difficult through this time because we’ve been in lockdown, there isn’t anything to do, but actually, you have to balance that for yourself, but also for your team, for other leaders in the organisation because I’ve found that unless I do do that, everybody else doesn’t as well.

Seeking help and support

Seeking help and support

Speaker 1 [00:00:08] Be yourself and when you are vulnerable, let people help.

[00:00:16] I get irritable about doing, I never get bad tempered but I get irritable if I can’t find a way through things so I know there’s been times where my wife has had to have a bit of a chat with me about irritations and frustrations and probably just get myself sorted out.

Speaker 3 [00:00:29] Through the whole first period, through the first seven months, and I extended it probably to nine or 10 months I had a conversation every Wednesday at seven o’clock with a counsellor, who was just brilliant. And, you know, I learnt a lot about myself. Some weeks we just had a chat, I just had a chat with a sane person who wasn’t in my world.

Speaker 1 [00:00:50] I don’t feel as lonely as I thought it was going to feel. And I think that’s because I trust my executive team and we are in this together, and they know if I’m vulnerable, my face tells you I haven’t got the ability to put on a game face. My face is very mobile, and you can tell when I’m sad and you can tell when I’m happy.

[00:01:17] When somebody is on a lower point and you’re on a better point, you have the ability to bring people up and vice versa.

Speaker 3 [00:01:24] The NHS leadership community is very kind I find, and people are there to help and to listen, and so please do reach out.