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We may have to wait for money to fund the People Plan, but compassion doesn’t cost anything

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The importance of compassion is often emphasised in reports on healthcare and the NHS, but is difficult to pin down in terms of meaning in practical and measurable terms. Of course, the word usually crops up in relation to patient care and the compassion – or sometimes the lack of it – shown by staff.

But NHS staff have now also been promised a more “healthy, inclusive and compassionate culture” in the draft workforce implementation plan – now known in warmer, fuzzy HR-speak as the Interim NHS People Plan.

Achieving such a culture change would enable “great development and fulfilling careers, and [ensure] everyone feels they have voice, control and influence”, according to the plan.

“Its lofty cultural ambitions cannot come soon enough”

The document, published on Monday, accompanies the broader NHS Long Term Plan for England and has been six months in the making.

Its lofty cultural ambitions cannot come soon enough, given the current focus from system regulators like NHS Improvement on the importance of retaining overworked nursing staff.

However, as ever, there are a few barriers to get over. One is the strict, hierarchical nature of leadership and staff reporting lines in the NHS, which often feels like it belongs in another age.

This can foster a reluctance to challenge or question behaviour and to ignore or isolate those that do challenge it, potentially leading to bullying and a blame culture.

Only last month, members of the Royal College of Nursing queued at their annual conference for an opportunity to share their experiences of the“toxic culture” of bullying they said was staining the profession and leaving some fearful to go to work.

Meanwhile, research published earlier this year indicated that more than half of newly qualified nurses were picked on in the workplace by their superiors. And another group of researchers found that nurses who were the victims of violence and bullying at work may be more likely to then go on to behave badly towards others.

Just yesterday, it was announced that a new inquiry was starting into incidents and failings at the former Liverpool Community Health NHS Trust. A previous inquiry there described the organisation as “dysfunctional” with a culture of bullying that meant staff were afraid to speak up and safety concerns were ignored or went unrecognised.

It’s safe to say that some parts of the NHS still have a way to go before they achieve the “inclusive and compassionate” culture, where “all staff are listened to, understood and supported”, which is so pleasantly described in the people plan.

To achieve the required shift, the plan notes, will require investment in leadership training at all levels, in all settings and at the earlier point in people’s careers.

Inevitably, that means money. Much of what’s in the rest of the plan also requires cash, which is why we were told the final version of the document – originally due in the autumn – would not be published until the government’s next spending review.

“It seems we must wait a little longer”

Unfortunately, Treasury ministers have this week admitted that the ongoing Tory leadership contest – which involves both the current health secretary and his predecessor – means a full spending review is “unlikely” to take place this year.

Alas, it seems we must wait a little longer then, but hopefully not as long as those waiting for the social care green paper.

In the meantime, managers could start the ball rolling by trying role-modelling compassionate behaviour to their staff. ‘Treat people as you’d like to be treated yourself’ shouldn’t require much training.

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