Using AI to prevent team burnout and implement a culture shift at Acorns Children's Hospice
As an organisation providing palliative care for children, the last 18 months have been tough on employees at Acorns Children's Hospice. New director of people and culture Matt Bullock had to act quickly to avoid team burnout. The solution? Artificial intelligence-powered employee sentiment technology to identify those care teams needing immediate assistance
Acorns Children's Hospice provides care and support for children in the West Midlands who have life limiting or life-threatening conditions. It offers a network of specialist palliative nursing care and support for local children and their families.
Caring for a child with complex medical needs can place unimaginable demands on a family, both physically and emotionally. When time is short every moment is precious, which is why as well as providing specialist care the team helps families to make lasting memories.
In the last year over 820 children and more than 1,070 families, including those who were bereaved, were supported by Acorns Children's Hospice.
When COVID-19 struck the UK, its effects were felt acutely across the country, but some sectors such as health and social care were especially hard hit, and Acorns found themselves on the frontline of the struggle against the virus. As caregivers, they are accustomed to making huge sacrifices for people in need; however, the challenges thrown up by COVID-19 were uniquely tough.
Some staff were redeployed to other locations in the West Midlands and Birmingham region to work as part of the wider NHS response to COVID-19. In some cases this resulted in new shift patterns and longer commutes (a 45 minute car journey each way, for example) and having to wear PPE for hours at a time, on top of the stresses of working in a healthcare system whose capacity was (and still is) under immense pressure due to the pandemic.
A few months into the pandemic, in August, a new director of people and culture, Matt Bullock, joined Acorns. Immediately Bullock saw how the team had stoically risen to the challenges thrown up by the previous few months; however, he also saw the warning signs of a team close to burnout.
Of the immediate morale issues he saw upon joining Acorns Bullock says: “Everything we do is centred on providing care and support for babies, children and young people and their families, as they experience hardship, pain and suffering. We cannot help them unless our team are in a good place themselves; being a care provider is a difficult job at the best of times, so when challenges mount and extra burdens are put upon team members, it’s important that we redouble our efforts.”
What Acorns did
As a new hire, and as someone with a significant amount of responsibility in caring for the carers, Bullock knew he had to get to work very quickly. He had scores of people spread over several locations in the West Midlands, many of whom he had not yet spoken to, and the clock was ticking before team members started to burn out completely.
Bullock immediately implemented a ‘cultural diagnostic’ of the entire organisation. He took stock of the organisation through a series of focus groups – but beyond this he wanted to know how everyone really felt. Focus groups and conversations are effective methods, by and large; however, he needed to really dig into the true sentiment of the team.
At this point Bullock brought Winningtemp’s employee engagement platform into the mix. Winningtemp’s platform is an anonymous, user-friendly tool that provides real-time insights into the wellbeing of employees. Through anonymised surveys the artificial intelligence-powered technology helps managers and leaders visualise employee sentiment and development in real-time, and act on these insights to strengthen engagement and improve performance.
Bullock put the technology to work and ran a large, one-off survey using the Winningtemp tools, which ran for three weeks. He was aiming to learn what was working well and, to make it as productive an exercise as possible, the areas where improvements had to be made. “We then paused the survey for two weeks before relaunching it to initially run every fortnight with six questions each time. The ambition is to get to running the questions weekly, once people can see that feeding into it achieves something positive,” Bullock says.
Working through the data gathered with Winningtemp’s platform Bullock identified some themes. Chief among the issues highlighted was that the care delivery teams – the workers on the very frontline – were reporting the lowest engagement and satisfaction scores. The insights, obtained from across the entire organisation, shaped and informed Bullock’s next steps.
Using the data points and scores Bullock was able to identify problems, such as the care delivery teams needing immediate assistance and revised development plans, and set goals in line with each individual team’s outlook on their working lives.
For Bullock the power that these insights can provide for other areas of organisation, such as within leadership, is invaluable. “It is forming the basis of the leadership culture that we want to create.”
“That’s really about a cohesive leadership culture around everybody within the leadership team, effectively ‘signing up’ to doing things in a certain way, within a certain set of rules. Collectively we need consistency.”
Bullock’s deep diagnostics have found that throughout Acorns there are pockets of excellence, but also pockets that aren’t quite as good. “It’s about understanding how we are going to set our stall out, in terms of the leadership team and leadership approach.
“That will inform where we need to develop, how we are going to do that, and how we inform our learning and development offer. Which brings it back full circle again as to what’s the impact of that for our people? Are they seeing that change? And therefore, realising that their direct feedback has the ability to influence what we do.”
As COVID-19 remains a significant issue for the care sector, and its effects will be felt by society for years to come, Acorns have to remain vigilant in protecting their team and ensuring they can provide their users with the care and support they need.
“We are focused on creating a culture in which we constantly listen and feed back. Did something positive happen by accident or was it by design? We must know where the problems are. Only by being brave enough to ask the questions, whether the answers are negative or not, can we possibly improve and know what to focus on,” Bullock says.
The data from Winningtemp’s surveys meant that ahead of each weekly team meeting Bullock and other senior figures were able to take the temperature of Acorns’ employees. Due to the surveys being anonymised, employees and volunteers have been led to feel that they can speak out without fear of reprisal. In turn, this has helped to foster a culture in which people express views freely, knowing they will be heard and that their concerns will be acted upon.
The next step for Acorns is using Winningtemp’s surveys and ongoing collection of data points to build the organisation’s plan for returning to the office. Responses from the survey are varied across the organisation, due to the very different experiences of working during the pandemic: a group of staff have been on furlough and some have been working from home, while many have been on the frontline of the response to COVID-19 as well as care duties. In order for the Acorns People team to create a successful plan for the future of the office – one that can cater to the large range of very different types of jobs within the charity and not leave any section of the organisation feeling ignored – gaining accurate insights into what their employees and volunteers feel and want will be more vital than ever.