We get what we value

Thoughts from Staff College…..the latest in our series of Faculty blogs
21 January 2021
We get what we value

Dr Gordon Coutts

In 1948 the NHS was created, and the BBC initiated the annual winter series of Reith Lectures. These lectures commemorate the work of Lord Reith who was the first Director General of the BBC.   Reith maintained that broadcasting should be ‘a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation’.1

The 2020 Reith Lectures were given by Dr. Mark Carney PhD, who was the 121st Governor of the Bank of England. His series was titled ‘How we get what we value’2. You may be curious as to why I am introducing an economist and banker to talk about values in health care. Well, a central banker was banging on about societal values and what is valued, including in health – this got my attention! His first lecture raised some very powerful points about values that are directly relevant to our current situation. He asked the question: ‘why do financial markets rate Amazon as one of the world’s most valuable companies, but the value of the Amazon rain forest does not appear anywhere until its deforested and converted into farm land?’ In other words, Values and Value are related but distinct.2

He goes on to say ‘moral sentiments are not inherent…they’re social memes that are learned, imitated and passed on. Like genetic memes, they can mutate in behavioural cascades and tipping points.’2

The NHS Constitution3 lists 6 values: Working for Patients, Respect and Dignity, Commitment to quality of Care, Compassion, Improving Lives, Everyone Counts. However, do these value the enormous discretionary effort we have seen and witnessed from staff working in the NHS over the past 10 months? The National Health Service is our national living treasure, how can we reconcile that with the working conditions of those in the health and social care sectors?

Values are created and promulgated by leaders;  they represent principles, standards of behaviour and are judgments about they believe is important. ‘Value is in the eye of the beholder and not in the sweat of the labourer’2. We are at a ‘tipping point’ and there are a number of questions for leaders to ask themselves as we start a new year:

  • Why did we not see the value of investing in preparations for a global pandemic, despite the previous ‘near misses’ of SARS and MERS?
  • How do we value our health and social care infrastructure and should staff be vaccinated sooner?
  • What will Leaders do to value the discretionary effort of staff now and in the future?
  • Closer to home – how will you recognise and value the extraordinary acts of care and compassion that you observe in your part of the NHS or Social Care?
  • Which of your personal memes will your teams imitate and pass on?

We get what we value. Lord Reith wanted the BBC to be ‘a public service which enriches the intellectual and cultural life of the nation’.  We need to value better the staff in our health service so that we can enjoy a healthy and rich life in the future.

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reith_Lectures
  2. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0900t1x
  3. https://www.hee.nhs.uk/about/our-values/nhs-constitutional-values-hub-0 
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