In what could be called a tumultuous year for Singapore's healthcare sector, TTSH saw a 94% staff retention rate - 2% higher than in 2019.  Serene Tan, CHRO, and David Hendrick Junior, Director of People Development, tell Priya Sunil the secret to this.

The year 2020 was the most significant year for Singapore's healthcare sector in living history – in came COVID-19, resulting in a sharp rise in the demand for healthcare workers.

Among the very first few institutions to be activated in the fight was Tan Tock Seng Hospital (TTSH), where both medical and human resources were intensively tapped on for treating patients. 

Undoubtedly, this brought about a shortfall in healthcare staff, and the need to tap on other avenues to fill the gaps. Yet, in such a tumultuous year, the Hospital's staff retention rate stood at 94% - 2% higher than in 2019, shares Serene Tan, Chief Human Resource Officer, Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

How did the leadership team tackle this?

In this exclusive, Serene Tan, and David Hendrick Junior, Director of People Development, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, tell Priya Sunil all about it - taking on a "whole-of-hospital" effort, while keep staff morale up in the process, cultivating a growth and agile mindset, and more.

Q Talk us through how you filled the shortfall in healthcare staff, and equally, how did you train your gig workers in such a short timeline?

David Hendrick (DH): TTSH has a strong learning culture and this served as an opportunity for us to further identify ways of reaching out learning to our staff. We pivoted and took a focus towards digital learning. We leveraged on two of our existing digital learning platforms, ELearn – modular courses and Uleap – Microlearning modules. These two learning platforms serves courses or microlearning modules designed and developed by our own staff, as content experts. Example for microlearning, we saw the number of modules grow from February 2020 (before COVID-19) being at 80 to currently we are above 280 modules.

Microlearning also provides learning anytime, anywhere and serves learners’ needs at the proximity of their workplace. To further support our learners, we introduced LinkedIn Learning, after a study of a few learning platforms. LinkedIn Learning was added at the end of June 2020 and now serves more than 4,500 learners, with a wide range of content from subject matter experts in their respective fields.

Serene Tan (ST): We are able to respond to the increase in demand for healthcare workers through a combination of our internal capabilities and external partnerships. To address the demand for additional manpower, we leveraged on social media to widen our reach and engaged potential hires through e-interviews and virtual career fairs, in place of physical open houses given safe distancing measures.

We also work closely with external partners like Singapore Airlines to deploy their staff as Care Ambassadors in our inpatient wards and outpatient clinics as well as tapped on government initiatives such as the SG Healthcare Corps to hire and train a new stream of healthcare workers, some of whom have gone on to join us permanently.

In the initial days of the outbreak, while our clinical staff were mobilised into the respective outbreak areas from the screening centre to NCID, ICU and TTSH wards, our non-clinical staff doubled up as first responders to be deployed to other identified areas of need such as the operations command centre for data collation and analysis, the screening centre for roster handling and temperature screening stations at the entrances.

Indeed, it takes a whole-of-hospital effort to make all these happen and we are grateful for our dedicated and committed colleagues who have stepped forward. Their strong sense of mission is manifested, not just in the work they do, but also in staying together to see this through. In 2020, our retention rate was at 94% - 2% higher than it was in 2019.

Q How did you as CHRO, Serene, and you as Head of People Development (PD), David, work hand-in-hand to push this out?

DH: It was definitely a collective effort. It was not just between HR and PD, but it extends to our respective educational units, senior management staff as well as with focus groups facilitated with staff and reporting officers, which include our union representatives as well.

With Senior Management we crafted the learning direction for FY21 and beyond, which learning needs were gathered from the educational units to determine the learning required during as well as into the new normal that goes beyond COVID-19. These were then shared by way of focus groups across a representation of staff, to gather insights and alignment. It was certainly a collective effort which was really rewarding, as we have the focused on the heart of development of staff.

ST: I agree with DH. We were able to turn the plans into action only because everyone came together and saw it as our collective responsibility to provide a strong response to the outbreak. For instance, when the foreign worker cases continued to soar, our allied health staff were trained and deployed to the isolation dormitories where they conducted swabbing and other all-rounder roles such as triaging, registration, managing data and tracking for the migrant workers.

Even our community health teams supported some 20 nursing homes and home care providers with swab testing for the vulnerable elderly and staff training so that they can better care for their residents.

Q What were the most pressing challenges you faced in the process, and how did you overcome them? And in your individual roles as leaders, what challenges did you face in line with this, both professionally and personally?

DH: I wouldn’t say we looked at it as challenges…. In fact, as the saying goes, in every crisis, there are opportunities, and that was how we looked at every single moment that was new and different for us. We knew we had a very good opportunity to drive digital learning, in alignment with our strategy of building a digital workplace as well as the nation’s drive towards a SMART Nation. As with everyone, we were pressed with time, as we had to juggle our efforts on operations as well as planning and executing our plans in a very short timeframe.

Looking back, I would say that as leaders, communicate and help different levels of staff involved in the process, understand the 'why' and allow for a two-way channel that supports collaboration and engagement.

There were also sacrifices that had to be made, but with the deep understanding of the 'why', this made it easier for many of the tight timelines and turnarounds possible. And finally equipping staff with the continuity of learning, enables each and every one to understand the reason for the pivot and collective effort.

On hindsight, embracing a growth-mindset helped us navigate and strengthen our efforts into the post-COVID-19 journey.

ST: COVID-19 is unprecedented in that it has stretched far longer than many had expected. While we had some success in meeting the manpower demands, we were also concerned about the welfare of our staff as the outbreak wages on.

The Hospital launched several initiatives such as the Spread a Smile campaign to keep our staffs’ spirits up. Our Staff Support Staff programme was further enhanced with the appointment of welfare officers in each department to support their peers and to let them know that they are not alone in this fight. On the digital front, a mental health module was developed and built into an existing bot used by the clinical staff. Our wellness team adopted the principle of Exercise Together, Separately, and leveraged on our internal social media channel to run exercise campaigns and fun giveaways in the continuing effort to encourage staff to stay healthy, both physically and mentally.

As we enter the new normal, we continue to work on these initiatives to ensure that our staff continues to be taken care of.

Q On the learning front - how has TTSH's learning strategy evolved over the past year, and what comprises your learning toolkit today? 

DH: The need to continue to build competencies to do our jobs well today and continuously build on competencies that would nurture skills and attributes to equip a future workforce for sustainability through lifelong learning. As well as building up leadership capabilities for self and others through nurturing strong and deep relationship to support the community.

Over the last one year since January 2020, more than 80% of our staff members took up learning across our four digital platforms (eLearn, Microlearning, LinkedIn Learning and DDI). Last year, each staff spent an average of about 23 hours in total in all four digital platforms and have visited at least 23 learning places.

More than 7,400 staff members have since benefited from Microlearning. The total number of modules learnt increases from about 5% in February 2020 to about 186% in January 2021.

In addition, LinkedIn Learning was well-received. Within six-months (July-Dec 2020), more than 1,500 staff participated in courses and the average learning hours escalated by 140% from 49 minutes in July 2020 to about two hours in January 2021.

Q On the HR front - what are the top 3 critical skills for HR to have in and beyond 2021, and why?

ST: One must have a growth mindset, an agile mindset, as well as be digitally enabled.

Much have been said about living in a VUCA world, and COVID-19 is that jolt and a testimony of how fast things can change. Having a growth mindset means to continually improve ourselves and the teams we lead, and in the process, build the capacity to take on the challenges that the uncertain world brings.

As organisations embrace the new normal in the post-COVID era, one of such capacity must be the ability to be agile and to adapt to changes. For example, we were able to supplement our supply of goggles and masks, at a time when there were limited stocks, because our colleagues, together with the Transformation Office or the Kaizen team, came together to innovatively create a series of protective gears such as the face shield, mask protector and even a handy sling pouch for phones.

Being agile calls for frequent and incremental review and this means that our work processes are continually being updated and our data regularly refreshed, which in turn, would lead to greater confidence and ownership amongst our teams and the constant availability of real time or near-real time data for critical decision making.

Q To end this on a sweet note – what do you have to say to every single employee in the industry who has been fighting hard at the frontline this past year?

DH: Build resilience through being a life-long learner. Be empowered to be a self-directed learner through building skills and capabilities that you want to learn and not because you have to learn.

Share and exchange your learning and experiences with others at all levels, to open new insights and perspectives that will deepen and widen your ability to manage forward. To navigate successfully into the future, you must invest in yourself, through lifelong learning.

ST: Thank you for the tireless work that you do everyday. Let’s us continue in this fight and together, we shall emerge stronger!


Photos / Provided by TTSH [Pictured from L-R: David Hendrick Junior, Director of People Development, Tan Tock Seng Hospital, and Serene Tan, CHRO, Tan Tock Seng Hospital]

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