I recently had lunch with a friend employed at a strategic health authority. Asked by an outplacement consultant what sort of job she wanted, she replied: 'Well I'd really like to keep the one I've got. Yes, that's exactly the job I'd like.'

In the same week, one of my colleagues pointed out that, under the new work permit rules, the lovely staff we recruited four years ago from the Philippines would have to wait at least another year for 'indefinite leave to remain' and that it would be difficult for them to apply for promotion, no matter how well deserved, until that time.

All businesses suffer from upturns and downturns - in profits, the economy or investment. This is the time when we need the strong voice of HR professionals more than ever. Our role is to ensure the business has a realistic balance between the immediate need to cut jobs and save money and the long-term damage done to our reputation as an employer.

We need to learn the lessons of the past. The NHS was indebted to nurses from Africa and the Caribbean when I was a child, but we did not attract their children to the service to replace them
- they did not see us as the golden employer, employer of choice or Investors in People. We need to work very hard, in these difficult times, to ensure future generations of staff from the Philippines, India and even right here at home don't abandon us next time we need them.

As we move forward we have an excellent opportunity with a new director general of workforce at the Department of Health to think strategically on how to raise our profile as a good employer.

I look forward to working with someone who has had all the experience of changing a culture to be truly customer focused: staffing 24-hour stores, peak hours working, and so on.

As things start to look brighter, we must learn the lessons for the future and commit to doing all we can not to get here again. That strong HR voice needs to be sure to repeat again a quote I read in the Sunday Times: 'Most overheads come on two legs.'

Deborah O'Dea is director of HR and organisationsl development at St Mary's trust in London and this week becomes president of the Healthcare People Management Association.