The number of serious complaints against primary and secondary care trusts was released last month as part of a review by the parliamentary and health service ombudsman.
Most of the complaints were about clinical care and treatment. The second largest number of complaints was about the attitude of staff. What steps should managers take when their systems and staff are called into question?
‘Ask yourself whether a concern that became a complaint could have been confronted sooner’
Let’s start with taking responsibility. That is what you as a manager are there to do. The worst thing you can possibly do is stick your head in the sand and hope it all goes away or that someone else will deal with it.
Confront the issue and identify how it arose in the first place. Most complaints start as concerns, and it is important to try to resolve them on the spot. If you do not, the complaint could become more formal, which is when it can be taken further. Ask yourself whether a complaint that began as a concern could have been confronted, and resolved, sooner.
Ombudsman Ann Abraham is right to issue instructions to apologise or “put things right”. As she says, “an apology can be a powerful remedy; simple to deliver and costing nothing” - provided there is not lasting damage. It is also important to remember that you and your staff are not alone in dealing with complaints.
Your trust is responsible for ensuring there is appropriate local policy and procedural guidance available to all staff, and you as a manager are responsible for making sure no one has to deal with any complaint alone.
It is also important to address each complaint individually. Some might be malicious or made entirely without basis.
In these cases, make this clear to your staff - and don’t be afraid to reinforce the point of what a good job they are doing for people who can sometimes be difficult “customers” in an often highly emotional and stressful environment.
The internet revolution can mean people believe they are better informed. What they don’t have - and what your team has in abundance - is knowledge of how that information should be applied and experience in doing so.
Give your staff confidence to assert themselves. They are the professionals; they know best.
On the other hand, prolific complaints will almost certainly be the sign of a more serious issue that needs to be taken seriously and addressed rapidly. Identify the problem and the best way to put things right, and give your staff achievable targets to succeed in for that purpose. This will help sustain morale - being complained about can mean your team’s professional self esteem will also suffer (especially if it is their attitude that is causing the complaints).
Employees typically have thoughts about workforce morale, but are often reluctant to share those ideas with management. Taking steps to increase communication of ideas and issues is an important first step. Given the proper format, workers are likely to share valuable comments.
Pete Mason is a consultant at Lloydmasters.