Chesterfield Royal Hospital NHS Foundation Trust were highly commended in the Freedom to Speak Up Organisation of the Year category at the 2021 HSJ Awards.

Through the work of both the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, Abbey Harris, and the senior leadership team, Chesterfield is committed to using a Speak Up, Listen Up, Follow Up model to improve the experience for its workers.

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, when the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities was not fully understood, a number of people spoke up about racial equality issues. Given the seriousness of the issue, the Freedom to Speak Up guardian immediately escalated these concerns to the Chief Executive. On learning of this, the Chief Executive met with those who had spoken up and agreed a response which would give this group a voice across the organisation.

With permission, the Chief Executive started sharing these stories in her bi-monthly blog, including a powerful letter that a colleague had written, describing how they felt. Those who spoke up were also invited to share their experiences at the Trust’s ‘Be Yourself’ group. Together with the communications team, two short videos were created and played to a leadership assembly session, helping people to learn from this and understand their actions and impact.

With support from the Board, some workers from ethnic minority backgrounds formed the Royal Cultural Community – celebrating and raising awareness of diversity. One of the workers who spoke up helped to create the Trust’s ‘Belonging and Inclusion’ educational sessions.

This started with a group of workers who were willing to speak up. It turned into a catalyst for organisational change, leading to wider cultural change, thanks to the Chief Executive’s willingness to listen to those voices, and take appropriate action to make Chesterfield a more inclusive space for all workers.

This is as an example of the expectation at Chesterfield, that values and behaviours are role-modelled by leaders, including listening, acting on concerns and supporting those who speak up.

The senior leadership team at Chesterfield has acknowledged the importance of the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian role, with increased ring-fenced time for Abbey to carry out the role – from 18 to 30 hours per week. There are now more than 20 Freedom to Speak Up Champions in the trust too, providing support for the guardian with raising awareness and signposting individuals and teams to get the right help. Champions have been given allocated time to take on the role, and they are presented with the opportunity to meet the Senior Independent (Non-Executive) Director and the Chief Executive.

Senior leaders also help to create awareness of the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian role. Freedom to Speak Up has been added to corporate induction at the trust, with a joint video presentation by the Chief Executive and Abbey. The Executive Directors have an ‘open door’ for Abbey and champion Freedom to Speak Up with their briefings and updates. Both leaders and the Board are involved in promotional campaigns and communications materials for Freedom to Speak Up, supporting Abbey’s work and promoting on their own personal social media accounts and blogs.

Encouraging an open culture can only work when someone speaking up is listened to, and action is taken. As Freedom to Speak Up Guardian, Abbey offers one potential route for speaking up. But she has also recognised the importance of training managers to listen as well. Abbey has developed a presentation and a handbook for managers and leaders to help them understand what the role is and isn’t. This gives them support so they are aware of how to act when someone does speak up to them.

Following up is down to leadership; those who are able to listen to what the workers are saying and make improvements. At Chesterfield, the mentality of organisational learning starts from the top. The Chief Executive and the rest of the senior leadership team are working with the guardian to foster a culture where all workers feel they can speak up about anything.

Abbey said, “’To be ‘Highly Commended’ is a privilege and is well-deserved by so many people across our organisation: those who are speaking up, those who are listening, those who take action to learn and improve, and those who promote a positive speaking up culture as part of everyday life. Most people know what ‘speaking up’ means across our organisation now, and that’s thanks to unwavering support and active encouragement by our leaders, who day after day show they that they themselves are listening and are supporting improvements. We know our culture is heading in the right direction and we also know that we still have work to do; next steps for us include making sure we’re looking out for everyone involved in speaking up, so that wherever they sit in the speaking up process – they know that help is there for them too.”