Gone missing: the human touch

Eddy Canfor-Dumas


October 2021

I had a conversation last week with a senior nurse of more than twenty years experience who is on the point of quitting the NHS – in anger.

Two things have pushed her to the edge.

First, in the course of her duties she contracted Covid, which turned into long Covid, and her experience as a patient was so poor, so lacking in compassion, that eventually she felt compelled to make a formal complaint.

This was hard for her as she felt an understandable loyalty to her NHS colleagues. But in the end she decided that upholding basic standards of patient care must come first.

Second, now that she’s easing herself back into work, her line managers are increasing her hours more quickly than she feels she can cope with. She understands that they’re short staffed and need to fill the rota but feels they’ve lost sight of her as a person. They’ve not consulted her about her increased hours, or which shifts she has to work, and seem to have no appreciation of the fact that she’s still recovering from a debilitating illness.

She feels disempowered, disregarded and disrespected. All she wants, she says, is a little understanding and consideration – but both seem in very short supply.

Bottom line – she’s looking for a different type of work. And not just because of her personal experience. She knows that many of her nursing colleagues feel the same way. There is a widespread feeling, she says, that there’s something wrong with the NHS, an organisation she used to love and to which she was completely dedicated.

This is very bad news, of course, because nurses leaving the profession – especially senior nurses – take with them years of experience (and extremely expensive training) that are impossible to replace.

Work is a negative experience

But the even worse news is that this nurse’s experience of working life is far from unusual. In fact, according to the latest research from Gallup, it’s the norm.

In polls of the involvement and enthusiasm of employees in their work and workplace, Gallup found that 80% of employees in all sectors across the world say they are either not engaged or actively disengaged. Taken regionally, the USA and Canada are at the top of the scale with 34% engaged – which still means two-thirds are not engaged – while western Europe comes at the bottom, with only 11% of employees engaged.

Put simply, for most people work is a negative experience. ‘The majority of full-time workers in the world,’ says Gallup, ‘are either watching the clock or actively opposing their employer.’ Which is pretty staggering.

But the big question is...why?

Fortunately, the research points to a clear answer. The main factor in determining the degree of engagement is the employee’s relationship with their direct boss – their line manager – but this relationship is experienced differently by each person.

69% of employees polled in Germany, for example, responded ‘Yes’ when asked if they’d ever had a bad manager in their career. But when asked ‘Do you believe you are a good manager?’ a whopping 97% of German managers polled also said ‘Yes’!

In other words, managers typically have a rose-tinted view of their capabilities but actually have a great big blindspot towards how their actions adversely affect those they manage. As one senior exec we’ve been working with admitted, ‘I thought I was a good communicator till I met you guys.’

What’s more, according to Gallup’s calculations it’s a blindspot that’s costing the global economy some $8.1 trillion a year.

So, what is to be done?

A fixable problem

Well, huge as it is, the problem is supremely fixable. It’s fundamentally one of management awareness and behaviour, both of which can – will – change when given the right incentives.

The tightening labour market in the UK, for example, will see organisations struggling to retain their people unless they become better places to work. Pay is part of that, sure, but developing the human touch in organisations – especially the communication skills – will become increasingly important and repay the investment many times over in staff retention, higher engagement and higher productivity.

The first step is for managers at all levels in organisations to take off their rose-tinted glasses and start to engage seriously with the problem of low (or no) engagement. If they don’t, the present sorry state of the workplace will continue, with all that potential value unrealised.

As the senior nurse mentioned earlier told me, ‘Healing starts when the patient is heard.’

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