What is staff engagement and why is it important?

Health care is a people business. The quality of care that patients receive depends first and foremost on the skill and dedication of NHS staff. Highly engaged staff – and by this we mean individuals who are committed to their organisations and involved in their roles – are more likely to bring their heart and soul to work, to take the initiative, to ‘go the extra mile’ and to collaborate effectively with others.

There is now an overwhelming body of evidence to show that engaged staff really do deliver better health care. The NHS providers with high levels of staff engagement (as measured in the annual NHS Staff Survey) tend to have lower levels of patient mortality, make better use of resources and deliver stronger financial performance (West and Dawson 2012). Engaged staff are more likely to have the emotional resources to show empathy and compassion, despite the pressures they work under. So it is no surprise that trusts with more engaged staff tend to have higher patient satisfaction, with more patients reporting that they were treated with dignity and respect (Review of Staff Engagement and Empowerment in the NHS 2014).

Yet despite the evidence, the question of how to create an engaged workforce still struggles to make its way on to the board agenda. It may seem like a vague concept, and there are always other, seemingly more immediate challenges. Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust had among the lowest levels of staff engagement in the NHS throughout the mid-2000s, but the alarm bells were not heard. While levels of staff engagement have risen across the NHS over the past few years, the disparities between organisations are wider than ever. Those trusts with the lowest levels of staff engagement are falling further behind the leaders (Review of Staff Engagement and Empowerment in the NHS 2014).

The good news is that we now know a huge amount, from the NHS and other sectors, about the conditions that create an engaged workforce. Developing engaged staff is a long-term endeavour and requires sustained effort throughout an organisation. But board members and other leaders can start making a tangible difference immediately, simply by focusing on the following six building blocks for success.

Next: develop a compelling, shared strategic direction