Olivia Tay, group CHRO of National Healthcare Group reveals how HR can leverage on employees’ passion for their jobs in order to boost their potential.

VITAL STATS:  Olivia Tay is a human resource practitioner with many years of experience in MNCs and a public-listed electronic manufacturing company. She joined NHG, one of two clusters of public healthcare institutions in 2001.  She assumed her current position as group chief human resource officer in May 2006.

What is the best part of heading HR for the National Healthcare Group (NHG)?

As an HR professional, I am privileged to be part of one of two largest public healthcare groups whose ideas, plans and decisions help to shape Singapore’s evolving healthcare landscape. The pulse is palpable, and that motivates me to do my best.

This is especially important in Singapore, which faces an ageing population. What we do today in terms of healthcare development will be crucial in helping us meet the demands of our population in the years to come, and contribute meaningfully to our future generations.

When did you join NHG and what experience did you bring?

I joined NHG in 2001. I was previously in the electronics manufacturing sector where I had stints in various areas including marketing and HR. Public healthcare was therefore a new realm for me; but that was good as I wanted to challenge myself in a different industry.

How have you seen NHG evolve since then?

NHG has undergone a lot of changes since 2001. When I first started, NHG was one of two clusters – the other being SingHealth. The mandate then was to leverage on clustering to streamline processes, and achieve better quality healthcare and productivity.

Today there are six clusters looking after the health of Singapore’s population.

Although more public hospitals are being built to cope with Singapore’s rapidly ageing population – exacerbated by falling birth rates and growing chronic disease – the reality is resources are finite.  That means even an effective healthcare system like ours will not, in the longer term, be adequate to address the needs of the nation.

To ensure long-term sustainability of our healthcare system, we have started to shift our focus further upstream, where healthcare providers no longer just take care of patients but the general population too.

Instead of just treating illnesses on an episodic basis, NHG adopts a new model of care that focuses on prevention, education and early detection – from illness care to wellness care. This type of healthcare is called population health management, where we look at the whole continuum of health, starting from birth.

The integration of medical and medical support services with our community partners means that we are able to provide a network of effective and holistic care to take care of the population. The larger objective, however, is for our population to start taking charge of their own health, to keep fit and live well.

For HR, it is important to understand what it is that we want to do; and from there, how we can develop our talent to support our vision.

For HR, it is important to understand what it is that we want to do; and from there, how we can develop our talent to support our vision.

So keeping in mind this focus on the entire spectrum of healthcare, and not just on acute care, how have your talent attraction and development policies changed?

We have to evaluate what additional skill sets our administrators, doctors, nurses or allied health professionals need.

For instance, are they equipped to interact and influence partners to achieve our shared vision? Are they confident enough to talk to schools and non-profit organisations? Do they have what it takes to work in multi-disciplinary teams to tackle population health management?

We would then need to equip them with the necessary know-how to accomplish these tasks.

We must also provide our staff with a deeper understanding of the extended care ecosystem, which includes step down care, mental, social and community services.

Only then can they effectively link patients and their families with the relevant parties to address their needs.

Population health management goes beyond simply equipping them with clinical skills. It’s about understanding different parts of the healthcare system and connecting the dots to provide better care for our patients.

We must also understand what skill sets our staff require in order to serve people throughout this spectrum of healthcare.

What leadership or skill development programmes do you have in place to provide your staff with such skills?

We have a suite of programmes to cater to the training needs of staff – from the leadership teams to middle and new-entrant managers, both in-house and external.

There are leadership courses as well as inter-professional training courses to foster team-based care. We also encourage learning from different clusters and industries where we can glean best practices.

Do you have any onboarding programmes in place?

We have induction programmes for employees to understand not only the organisation, but also its culture. At NHG, we launched our culture building programme in 2012, titled 4P7R – 4 Principles and 7 Rules to guide our staff to fulfil their roles and responsibilities with the right behaviour.

We believe the culture of 4P7R will bring us to the next level of performance, quality and care; as well as to have greater synergy with our partners.

In essence, the four principles are:

– Patient-centred care: where we focus on understanding on what our patients need and value to create a healing relationship;

– Systems thinking: where we seek to make our complex healthcare system simple, safe and reliable for our staff and patients;

– Learning organisation: where we continuously learn and share to build our competency and capability to achieve excellence;

– Staff engagement: with our people as our most valued resource, we want to build a purpose-driven, safe and nurturing work environment to collectively achieve our goals.

Essentially, the 4 principles emphasise upon systems thinking.

For example, when engaging our staff, the people who join healthcare are similar in the sense they are all compassionate about helping people – that is why they become doctors and nurses and other health professionals.

But what about the rest of the people who support the whole healthcare system?  How do we engage them so they remain inspired?

We cannot always depend on their compassion for others –we have to ensure they are self-motivated and find meaning in what they do.

We are experimenting various models to motivate everyone. It is natural that in this journey, there will be some challenges while we are evolving.

As a result, our leadership plays a key role in engaging and empowering staff with the right tools to fulfill their roles.

Our senior leaders make it a point to attend employee engagement programmes. We also have sessions called ‘leadership moments’, where senior management sharetheir expertise and life lessons with staff.

But what about the rest of the people who support the whole healthcare system? How do we engage them so they remain inspired?

How do you measure the effectiveness of these programmes and your employee engagement levels?

Like many other large firms, we conduct employee climate surveys, but what makes us different is that we have included an additional element of the culture index in our surveys. Specific questions have been designed to give us insights as to whether the 4P7R is being practised by staff.

We are still in the early days of our journey to build a strong culture in NHG, but initial findings are promising. We believe that this culture index plays a large role in influencing how our employees work and perform.

Why do you think the healthcare industry is facing a talent shortage today?

I think I have to divide this answer into two broad categories.

Healthcare requires skilled professionals – doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, etc. Knowledge building and skills training for these professional groups inherently takes time for them to attain a certain level of standard.

This, in a way, limits the talent pool.

That said, Singapore’s newest medical school, the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine – of which NHG is the primary clinical training partner – is helping to boost the pipeline for doctors in the longer term.

Secondly, we need to grapple with the negative perception or stigma associated with some public healthcare professions.

For example, the prevailing mindset that being a doctor is considered a glamourous career, but nursing not so much. The reality is that it is not an easy task to take care of the daily functions of a patient who is physically sick or terminally ill.  It takes someone who cares to go beyond to do so, to make a difference.

The bigger challenge is not about recruitment.  It is about educating our young people to appreciate the value of healthcare so that they would want to be healthcare professionals.In that way, we can build up a more robust talent pool over time, especially when they graduate.

How do you overcome such challenges then?

We work very closely with the Ministry and polytechnics to help student better understand the many career opportunities and disciplines in the healthcare sector.

We also organise hospital open houses where students can shadow certain professionals to get a better understanding of what the responsibilities entail.

For instance, some students haven’t heard of professions such as speech therapists or occupational therapists, so we help create awareness. We also organise open houses to allow students to shadow and walk in our hospitals to get a better understanding of what that job entails.

The prevailing mindset that being a doctor is considered a glamourous career, but nursing not so much.

How big a role does social media and technology play in doing this?

I think there is success in social media for some roles. We are always on the lookout for the most effective recruitment platforms befitting certain jobs.

If you talk about IT or administrative jobs, then social media works well. For some other professions, hands-on exposure may be more effective.

How important is diversity to NHG?

I believe that success is gender blind. However, the healthcare sector tends to attract more females due to the nurturing aspect of the work. We do make a conscious effort to appeal to more male nurses and they do just as well.

For example, our flagship Tan Tock Seng Hospital has Singapore’s first male Chief Nurse.

In terms of diversity of nationalities, we do recognise that we do not have enough locals. We treasure our foreign professionals, but we are also aware that there has to be a balance between the two.

How do you think HR has evolved over time in your opinion?

HR used to focus on transactional tasks – hiring people; administering their leave and benefits etc. But today, people realise that human capital is exactly that – capital.

It needs to be optimised and grown. Having the right people in the right place is just as critical as having the right strategy.

Companies that understand this naturally have higher retention and attraction rates. Therefore, a successful HR department must now look at the development of human capital, and how to help them meet their career aspirations.  It has gone beyond just offering competitive salaries.

As long as HR keeps doing this, and is aligned to the organisation’s vision and mission, it can tailor its strategies to suit the business.

We do recognise that we do not have enough locals. We treasure our foreign professionals, but we are also aware that there has to be a balance between the two.

In light of this, what are the key skills HR leaders should have today?

They must have the fundamentals in place, such as pegging market salary rates. They must also understand the business and the role they have play in driving the company forward. This will help them visualise what else is required to support the company’s vision.

Where do you think HR will go to in the next 5-10 years?

It depends on the individual.  I know of bosses working within the HR industry who have gone on to become CEOs.  I also have friends who have moved on to become HR consultants.

Most firms today recognise the importance of human capital, and their HR plays a very active role in shaping the strategy of the organisation. Overall, I feel HR will continue to play an integral role in shaping and driving the growth strategy of an organisation.

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