A recent report has found that Covid-19 has improved employment relations, but evidences the need for investment into HR focusing on people skills and increasing freedom for frontline managers to make use of informal resolutions

The first wave of Covid-19 meant putting many formal HR processes on hold: procedures used for dealing with conflict, disputes and grievances. But despite the enormous pressures that staff have faced since March, the NHS has seen a largely positive picture of improving employment relations (ER), including working more effectively with trade unions and handling  conflict better.

These improvements in employment relations are revealed in the  research carried out by Professor Richard Saundry, one of the UK’s leading experts on workplace conflict. Professor Sundry was commissioned to gather insights from more than 250 NHS Human Resources leaders, senior practitioners and trade union representatives for the report The Impact of Covid-19 on Employment Relations in the NHS.

Findings have confirmed the challenges faced by staff as they began to deal with the new anxiety and workload pressures created by the first wave of the pandemic: more than 80 per cent of staff  surveyed agreed that Covid had a ‘detrimental impact on the health and wellbeing of staff’ in their organisations. 57 per cent of respondents reported increased stress-related absence, while nearly two-thirds saw an increase in referrals to occupational health. A number of respondents reported concerns among BAME staff that they were being exposed to unnecessary risk.

The report reveals how the initial Covid-19 lockdown period created a new need to rely on people skills and more informal approaches to dealing with grievances and disputes. Perhaps surprisingly, rather than leading to confusion this less formalised approach had real benefits for ER, demonstrating the value of good people management and informal skills over formal procedures. The numbers of disputes fell significantly. While this was mainly due to the postponement of formal conflict and disciplinary procedures, the research also found that increased camaraderie and solidarity had improved relationships amongst employees. Just over 75 per cent of respondents felt that disciplinary and grievance issues were bogged down in lengthy procedures. The lockdown period had, by contrast, led to an increase in partnership working between management and unions, improving communications and aiding more agile and flexible working practices.

Poor line management was seen by staff as a typical source of conflict, and only one-third of respondents felt that managers were well-equipped to resolve difficult issues. In other words, greater investment is needed in developing the HR function in the NHS to train and develop  HR professionals in order to help embed improved communications with staff, enhance health and well-being, create greater organisational agility and facilitate the creative use of new technology. Existing leadership development programmes were said to often neglect the tools and techniques that managers need to identify, address and resolve conflict. Investment in training was being mis-directed to senior levels rather than to frontline people managers.

In the past eight months, HR has come of age, showing itself to be not just transactional and process-driven but also essential for protecting and promoting positive relationships at work, helping to ensure the best outcomes in terms of patient care. Professor Saundry’s research provides evidence of the need for investment into HR that focuses on ‘softer’ people skills and the freedom to make use of informal resolutions, particularly for frontline people managers.