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Using inclusive leadership practice to support the NHS and its workforce

16 November 2022

Dr Navina Evans is Chief Workforce Officer, NHS England and Chief Executive, Health Education England.  Speaking at the NHS Providers Annual Conference and Exhibition 2022, she explored why inclusive leadership is a vital component in supporting the diversity of our NHS.

The NHS has been a constant in our lives for nearly 75 years. Through the ups and downs of history, the NHS has been there with us, adapting alongside us and our changing society. During that period, new technologies have been developed, and our understanding of care and the health and social care workforce has improved and evolved.

This evolution has been essential to the success of the NHS and is key to ensuring its future. Our people are our greatest strength, and, to meet the demands of our population, we must have a workforce that is reflective of that population. We must ensure we are inclusive, so that our people can be themselves and bring their best selves to work. Together, this will enable us to best utilise the wealth and diversity of thoughts, ideas, and insights each of us can bring to the table.

So, inclusive leadership is vital to our work, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it makes good business sense. Together, we collectively hold the power to create a health service that is actively inclusive of all regardless of background, ethnicity, disability, sexuality, gender, sex, age or religion. In Health Education England (HEE), we know that this helps us to attract and retain the talent we need to best meet our population’s needs.

This is a long journey; one that we have already started in HEE but must consistently work towards to be successful. The theme for this year’s Black History Month was ‘Actions not Words’ and I think it’s important all of us take this to heart and know that our actions can have a real impact.

First, we need to ask ourselves; how can we set an example that others will follow? How can we build a culture that is truly inclusive and values diversity as our strength? For me, it’s about making this central to what we do; a non-negotiable, essential part of our business. It can be easy to put efforts to improve our culture on the back burner in these times of great pressure and challenge, but that is precisely when these efforts are most needed. The last few years of Covid-19 and recovery have both highlighted and exacerbated existing health inequalities, and as those responsible for the future of our health and social care workforce I believe we have the power to lead and influence genuine change.

We developed Framework 15 (https://www.hee.nhs.uk/our-work/long-term-strategic-framework-health-social-care-workforce-planning)  as a guide for the future of the NHS workforce. As a Digital (customer) First organisation we must deliver greater, more personalised services for learners, employers, educators, and colleagues – allowing us to meet the needs and expectations of those we serve. The creation of the new NHS England is a great opportunity to embed workforce planning into the heart of the NHS. We have a unique opportunity to align service, finance and workforce planning, as well as continue to build on our inclusive and dynamic culture together.

As inclusive leaders, we need to ensure that opportunities are available to people from a wide range of backgrounds to begin their careers in healthcare beyond the traditional methods of teaching and training. The medical doctor degree apprenticeships are a great example of this. The apprenticeship aims to attract people from underrepresented groups into the profession and offers us the opportunity to grow our future medical workforce by attracting and recruiting from a wider pool of people in local communities. It also gives individuals, who for a multitude of reasons may be unable to attend university full time, a new route to train as a doctor.

Discourse about effective leadership in the NHS is ever present, and the evidence tells us that an effective leader is an inclusive one. Our leadership behaviours and qualities will continue to be tested, with greater scrutiny than ever before. We won’t always get things right, and that’s okay. But we can listen and lead by example. We can speak out against any discrimination we see and use our voices as leaders to put inclusion front and centre of our work.

For me, this is essential. Now is the time for leaders to speak up, take personal responsibility and be visible in action. Leading with authenticity and connecting with those we serve will be our greatest and most valuable challenge. Put simply, I firmly believe that if we look after our people, the rest will follow. 

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