Goodwill Hunting – How Do We Balance Effort, Risk and Reward?



Another day, another front page talking of burnout in the emergency services (this time NHS) leading to an exodus. Over the past ten years or so, we seem to have become comfortably numb to quite how serious this is for society: when you pick up the phone to dial 999 because something you can’t deal with has happened, what will you get? When your kids go into school, what will they get? When someone goes to prison, what’s the environment they enter?


Firstly, let me shout this from the figurative social media rooftops: you will get people who have dedicated their lives to answering that call, training and studying for it, often at serious cost to themselves and their own family. They will be passionate, committed specialists who think nothing of throwing themselves headlong into things 90% of Britons don’t even know exist. As a nation we should be far more grateful for that – in tangible ways, not just clapping on doorsteps and having to watch your Grandad do laps of the garden to raise money for a fundamental service to survive.


The uncomfortable truth, though, is this: those same exceptional people in blue, green, yellow or orange or standing at the front of that class are worn out. Burned out. Exhausted. Very often already looking for a tunnel out of there – and just like The Great Escape, they’re incredibly good at hiding it. Instead of sieving the dirt through their pockets to hide their digging, they just perform covert job searches, email people like me and spend their free time gathering up online courses. The guards finding an empty space at the next roll call becomes the incredulous look of the line manager receiving their notice and saying: “Are you sure? Why do you want to leave?”


Now that we’ve wrung every word out of that analogy, let’s delve into the factors at play.

All of these services attract and depend on the goodwill of people who go into those occupations for all the right reasons: altruism, making a difference, solving problems or inequalities they faced themselves… it’s rare to find someone who joins the police thinking it will lead to fame and fortune.


From an organisational perspective, this is great, right? Most big commercial companies spend a fortune on developing, embedding and promoting their values and ethos – they’d kill for “brand loyalty” and ownership like this. So, in theory, all the emergency services, healthcare and education must do is provide a healthy and supportive environment. Develop people and reward the highest performers, harnessing the vast knowledge on offer to equip new recruits with even more tools.

Not so fast…


Goodwill and discretionary effort only go so far. No one really minds that extra half hour “for The Queen”. Nor missing birthdays, Christmas, New Year etc and not being able to plan social events on weekends or Bank Holidays (though I admit I really did mind doing Notting Hill Carnival every year).


Traditionally, there had been some sort of trade off for all this. Overtime, double time, time off in lieu (which you could then actually take when you wanted to), recognition that it was somehow appreciated and worthwhile. Pay and conditions on a day-to-day basis don’t reflect the sacrifices anymore. On a bigger scale, the concept of a final salary pension scheme was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow – no longer.


The little things are, in reality, the big things: being thanked for what you do, for example. When we run our resettlement course for police officers leaving after 25+ years, two things become apparent:


- No-one says thank you. Last time I totted up 517 years of public service in the room, and when I asked if anyone had ever been thanked by that community… tumbleweed.


- We still hear horror stories of people having to stuff their uniform in a bin bag and cut up their warrant cards before being escorted from the premises. Some thanks for a lifetime of service and risk… not to mention the psychological trauma of that moment.


Conversely, when we speak to our “alumni” – people who’ve gone on from policing, ambulance services, teaching, fire and rescue to work for businesses – they invariably say they’re happy because they feel valued, invested in and that their efforts have a direct correlation to their rewards.


Right now, in public sector HR or board-level inboxes then, the impression we get is 99 problems and retention ain’t one. It really should be. I’ll offer some suggestions – I don’t think this is rocket science, and I really don’t know what more proof we need of the crisis we’re sleepwalking into.


Across professional sport, forward-thinking businesses and generally high-performance environments everywhere, the concept is: train the person, not the player. Let’s reframe police officers, paramedics, teachers, prison officers as high-performance people – because when you make that call, that’s what you want, right? Someone fine-tuned to deliver what you need when you need it – there’s often no second chance.


Training the whole person means understanding the whole person first. On our courses or in our coaching, this conversation usually happens one way or another:


- “Tell us about yourself / your goals / your values / your strengths”

- “Erm… no-one’s really ever asked me that before / never thought about it”


We’re spending huge amounts of giving people technical skills and knowledge, equipping them to save or take lives – yet we often don’t know the first thing about them. The real them, below the surface. All the things they’re bringing to work and suppressing. All the things that may be influencing their decisions.


Of course, I’m a realist. An optimistic one, but I still get that everything has a cost. Proactively investing in this stuff is a negligible expense when set against the bigger picture. The return on investment, however, is huge. The business case speaks for itself. The human case is even more deafening. Otherwise, we risk becoming a country that knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

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