Matt Corbishley on the unique challenges facing HR in the hospice sector, and why compassion and business nous aren’t mutually exclusive

Many HR leaders claim to be business-focused, but how many actually have the organisation's life-or-death funding firmly on their radar? For Matt Corbishley, director of HR and workforce development at Ashgate Hospice Care in Derbyshire, securing the organisation’s finances is a vital part of the support his small HR team provides to its 300 paid staff and 700 volunteers. Corbishley explains how HR can care and challenge at the same time, and why the new Strategic Human Resources and Workforce Leads Network (SHaWL) will help safeguard the sector’s future.

What are the key HR issues affecting the hospice care sector?

One is constricting funding. Both the statutory and voluntary income that hospices rely on is being squeezed. How do we ensure we remain financially viable and sustainable? What do we need to do differently to generate income? People are living longer with increasingly complex needs and demand for our services is growing, so what does this mean for our service models and what are the workforce implications? In terms of workforce, we know there is a national shortage of nurses, particularly the specialist nurses that hospices rely on. Many are approaching retirement age, so there’s a real urgency around the need to grow and develop our own skilled staff. The introduction of the apprenticeship levy, the termination of the nursing bursary and possible post-Brexit restrictions on the free movement of labour mean we have to look at very different models of talent management and career development.

It’s interesting that funding is so high on your agenda; many HR professionals probably don’t have to worry about how their organisation is funded.

I am an HR director, but first and foremost I am a director of a hospice – so I consider myself equally accountable for ensuring financial sustainability and high-quality care as the rest of my colleagues. Obviously I have a functional focus on the workforce and people issues, but if I operated and thought in an HR silo that just focused on training and employee relations, we wouldn’t get very far. Without the income, there is no service for our patients. I could think of all sorts of ideas around workforce development, but if the money isn’t there to back it up, it’s not possible.

Is staff wellbeing a big focus area for you?

Absolutely – resilience is really important for us. We know that staff working in healthcare suffer more from work-related stress issues than employees in other sectors, although that proportion is actually lower in hospices than elsewhere in the sector. We offer support to staff through things such as Schwartz Rounds and an employee assistance programme, and we are also working towards mindful employer status. Without that support, employees risk burning out – which we can’t afford to happen. Care and compassion are central to our HR strategy.

Do HR practitioners in hospices need a specific set of skills to succeed?

Yes, I think they do. In other sectors, I’ve heard senior HR people say: ‘I don’t want to take on anyone in HR who says they are a people person. We need to be aligned to the business – it’s not about being pink and fluffy.’

But being caring, compassionate and supportive, and making challenging business decisions, aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both. That perception has frustrated me in more than one organisation in the past – where there’s been almost a desperation to be accepted by the business and a feeling that they have to be overly bullish and hard-nosed, almost testosterone-fuelled. I think respect for HR comes from demonstrating a genuine knowledge and interest in what the business is about. It comes from being authentic, caring about the people who work there, being business-minded and focusing on generating income to deliver patient care. Respect doesn’t come from puffing out your chest and parading around because you’ve managed to sack someone or turn down someone’s flexible working request. Understanding the business and the people is absolutely key. I know that’s a cliche, but it really is.

What are the driving forces behind founding SHaWL?

When I joined the sector three and a half years ago, I found it was difficult to connect with people to share ideas and thinking. So the network’s aim is to share models of good practice, and to think about new models of service delivery and the workforce implications for those models. We also want to focus on the HR profession itself; to support colleagues to put in place the right processes, and to help them provide strategic guidance at board level.

One of the great things about the sector is that we don’t compete against each other; hospices generally serve different regions and populations, so we don’t compete for funding or to care for patients. There is absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain in working more closely together.

Find out more about the Strategic HR and Workforce Leads Network via the Hospice UK website