A year like no other!

By Sharon Benson, Senior Director of Human Resources at Gracewell Healthcare

When starting my new role as Human Resources Director (HRD) at Gracewell Healthcare, never in a million years did I think one of my first tasks with the Executive Leadership Team would be to close the doors to our care homes and communities. A year ago today, I found myself spending the morning drafting the letter for my CEO to inform our residents’ loved ones that we were taking the difficult decision, ahead of any formal government announcement, to suspend all visiting. That day I also had to quickly initiate a re-design of my newly planned people strategy to implement a targeted COVID-19 response plan that initially focused on the immediate critical business issues of:


  • Recruitment and retention
  • Colleague welfare
  • Communication and engagement
  • Virtual on-boarding and development


Although I recognised that HRDs across the globe were facing a similar plethora of people challenges that Covid created, it was the first time in my career that my strategic response would directly impact other people’s lives. Across the Gracewell portfolio, we have circa 3,000 Residents, some of the most vulnerable in society when it came to the fight against the coronavirus. I was acutely aware that one wrong move from a people perspective could have a domino effect on our people’s safety and well-being. The pressure was on and we needed to act quick.

The first call to action was forming a COVID-19 Taskforce, made up of a tight group of colleagues from key functions across our business, project managed by my new in post Head of Change, Casey Collins. The purpose of this group was to develop both tactical and strategic plans to manage the outbreak. They led on activities such as, tracking and implementing new governmental policies, developing over 100 new protocols and centralising labour reporting to effectively manage the deployment of over 5,000 front-line team members.

With a portfolio of 46 care homes caring for residents, all with varying needs, the priority was to ensure a continued standard of care and quality excellence against the backdrop of a challenging workforce landscape. The reality was that COVID-19 required a large proportion of colleagues to self-isolate or shield due to their own or those they lived with health conditions. This created an immediate business risk in terms of workforce planning and Resident care. To this end, a Rapid Recruitment Response Team was created, meaning several Head Office colleagues were re-deployed from their day jobs to support the effort and enable our care homes to deliver care safe and well.

I like to think that any challenge also creates an opportunity; for us, this meant re-designing a new behavioural based interview process, the launch of virtual interviews administrated and managed by a centralised team and the re-design of our Community induction in a virtual format. In the initial 10-12 week period from April to early June, we recruited and on-boarded 677 Colleagues, with similar levels of demand continuing over the following months. I had great comfort in knowing the process we deployed had the desired effect by attracting and recruiting the most culturally aligned people. We saw our temporary bank to permanent contract conversion double in 2020, our recruitment cost and time to hire savings were over £875k with overtime and contract labour costs reduced by 30%.

By mid-March, we all saw COVID-19 take a grip and this required the investment in my team to build technical and specialist resilience in order to provide the best possible service to our Communities. Dave Barber joined to lead on our Communications and he quickly deployed weekly newsletters, regular protocol update bullet-ins and interactive all-colleague conferences using Sli.do to keep connected with our front line teams. Laura Whittle, was next in, to head up the business partner team and people change, concentrating on leading projects that enhanced safety measures to support our colleagues, such as changes to shift patterns of housekeeping teams to manage infection control, a mini bus service to work, and increased allowances. And finally, Glenn Milton completed our team last summer as Head of Talent Acquisition to continue the transformation and drive further improvements in our attraction, recruitment and retention of team members.

All of this activity was underpinned by a prompt employee brand transformation, as it was important for me to drive the connection between the EVP with the CVP. Working closely with our Head of Marketing Jen Walker and our partners PLMR, we’ve seen a massive increase in our media reach by 1,751% from 10m to 187m in 12 months. I’m proud that we’re now seen as a thought leader in the market for some of the protocols our Taskforce developed to ensure that our residents maintain meaningful contact with their loved one during the pandemic. We’ve been interviewed nationally and regionally by Sky, the BBC, ITV, Channel 5 and other news channels, 24 times, giving our team members the opportunity to showcase how they’ve been delivering great care and keeping our residents safe during the pandemic.

In times like these, it can be easy to get embroiled in the volume of tasks, demands and activities our businesses create. However, I’m a firm believer in learning from others and leveraging relationships, ideas and best practice, to give alternative views and most importantly to maintain perspective. For this reason, I set up a HRD WhatsApp group with other private care providers. Let’s face it, when fighting a pandemic, competition goes through the window and professional support and sharing becomes a priority so we can all win and get through this together. Our digital chats were an invaluable source of education and insight for me being new to the adult care sector, my HRD colleagues were exceptionally generous and giving of their time, experience and knowledge.

So, it’s fair to say it’s been one hell of a year, but we still have plenty to do as we continue to battle against the virus, by promoting our vaccination programme and recover as an organisation and country. Here at Gracewell we’re making 2021 the year of well-being, mental health, and resilience. We recognise that our colleagues, who’ve given so much to others, need to be looked after emotionally, mentally, and spiritually in return. As a business, we’re privileged to see the loyalty of our teams’ shine through with colleague turnover reducing last year by 22% and our Have Your Say (HYS) engagement scores being an amazing 87%. During our Executive Leadership Team HYS roadshows across all 46 care homes, many colleagues shared how reassured and supported they felt by the readily stocked and availability of PPE, the minibus service to avoid public transport, enhanced shift and overtime allowances as well as a free hot meal on shift, when they know this may not have been perhaps so readily available or affordable for other providers.

In summary, being the HRD here is one of the most challenging jobs I’ve had, but the overwhelming sense of pride from keeping people alive by the decisions we have made together as an ELT and the culture we have created for our colleagues and residents, trumps every other professional achievement I’ve accomplished to date. I’m eternally grateful to be weathering this storm, in a business where our colleagues are generating the value by being entrusted in caring for people in their final years. Although we now cautiously look to emerge from the pandemic, the lessons I have learnt and the selfless acts of kindness and dedication I have witnessed will remain with me, long after COVID-19 is consigned to history.


To find out more about Gracewell, click here.

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