The British need to learn to love failure

Something we can learn from the Yanks.

Ben Bernanke, addressing Princeton graduates last month, made the following sage observation: "Nobody likes to fail but failure is an essential part of life and of learning. If your uniform isn't dirty, you haven't been in the game."

This quote struck an immediate resonance with me. The notion of embracing failure as part of a learning curve and a vital life tool, in both a personal and business sense, is one scarcely heard on the UK side of the pond. I suspect that Princeton graduates will have already been familiar with the "fail to succeed" doctrine espoused by Bernanke, as it is taught in so many US classrooms and colleges. However Bernanke's statement, to my mind, illuminated the gulf that exists between US and UK on the critical subject of failure.  

In the US, failure is not necessarily a pejorative term denoting categorical error and misjudgement. It is not seen as stumbling block along the path of career development, rather it is viewed - as much, if not more - as an enabler rather than disabler. Failure enables learning, it creates clarity and understanding. It is not to be encouraged per se, but failure should be recognised as a natural part of existence and as something from which positive lessons can be drawn.

Clearly when failure destabilises economies profoundly or leads to terrible accidents people should be rightly held accountable. However in the business world it is fair to say that in the US people embrace the opportunity to learn from mistakes and therefore do not fear failure in the same way as their UK counterparts, who are raised to fear failure over and above all else. This culture of fear leads to a dearth in creativity, for why should one dare to do something different if there is the prospect of failure?

The issue in part stems from schools, the understandably rigorous examination system and progresses through to highly competitive, grades-tested graduate fast stream programmes and other "first job"' employment initiatives that covet "straight-A" students.

Whilst this approach is in its conception meritocratic and laudable, grades and academic 'success' does not always tell the complete story. Indeed, it might mean that some of the best candidates never get past the first stage in any recruitment process.

This is because being a straight-A student does not mean that they are perfect but merely someone who has never done badly in a course – impressive in itself, but also perhaps indicating that they have never really been tested. If they have not been tested to the extent of receiving at least some weak grades, then they are either superhumanly gifted or, I would argue, that they missed out on how to cope with failure. How to cope with failure moulds character in a way that achieving constant 'success' never can. And constant success in business is never achievable in the long term.

A final thought from Woody Allen: "If you're not failing every now and again, it's a sign you're not doing anything very innovative." Innovation is a process of trial and error – with the latter part being equally as important as the former. Clearly this process must be channelled towards the overarching aim of achieving success, but fearing error means avoiding innovation. Learning from mistakes helps to build better businesses. Of course with failure, a little goes a long way!

Ben Bernanke. Photograph: Getty Images

Co-CEO of DLA Piper

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The NHS's sustainability is under threat if more isn't done to look after its staff

More work is needed to develop the health service's most precious resource.

As the NHS nears its 70th anniversary, the time is ripe for a workforce rescue plan. Staffing worries, even more than funding pressures, are the biggest cause of concern for NHS trust leaders. There are not enough trained health workers in the UK to meet today’s needs, let alone those of the future.

Demands on hospitals, mental health and community trusts, and ambulance services are growing. More patients need treatment. Increasingly, they require complex care, with specialist expertise. This is not just about numbers. We need a clinical workforce that is skilled and equipped to work in new ways to deal with the changing needs of the population it serves. 

That means improving the supply of people coming to work for the NHS, and doing more to develop and motivate them so they want to stay. These problems are not new but the scale of the challenge has reached a tipping point which threatens the future sustainability of the NHS.

Ministers rightly point out that the NHS in England has more clinical staff than ever before, but numbers have not kept pace with rising demand. The official "shortfall rate" for nurses and midwives across England is close to 10 per cent, and in some places significantly higher. Part of this is down to the recognition, after the events at troubled health trust Mid Staffordshire, of the importance of safe staffing levels. Yet for successive years during the coalition government, the number of nurse training recruits fell.

Far from being a problem just for hospitals, there are major nursing shortages in mental health and community trusts. Between 2009 and 2016 the number of district nurses employed by the NHS in England fell by more than 40 per cent. Just as the health service tries to accelerate plans for more treatment closer to home, in key parts of the workforce the necessary resources are shrinking.

There are also worrying gaps in the supply of doctors. Even as the NHS gears up for what may prove to be its toughest winter yet, we see worrying shortfalls in A&E consultants. The health service is rightly committed to putting mental health on an equal footing with physical health. But many trusts are struggling to fill psychiatry posts. And we do not have enough GPs.

A key part of the problem is retention. Since 2010/11 there has been a worrying rise in “leaver rates” among nurses, midwives, ambulance staff and scientific technical staff. Many blame the pressures of workload, low staffing levels and disillusionment with the quality of care. Seventy per cent of NHS staff stay on for extra hours. Well over a third say they have felt unwell in the past year because of work-related stress.

Add in cuts to real basic pay, year after year, and it is hardly surprising that some are looking to other opportunities and careers outside the public sector. We need a strategy to end pay restraint in the NHS.

There is also a worrying demographic challenge. Almost one in three qualified nurses, midwives and health visitors is aged 50 or older. One in five GPs is at least 55. We have to give them reasons to stay.

NHS trusts have made important strides in engaging with their workforce. Staff ratings on being able to report concerns, feeling trusted to do their jobs, and being able to suggest improvements are encouraging. But there are still cultural problems – for example around discrimination and bullying – which must be addressed locally and nationally.

The NHS can no longer be sure that overseas recruits will step in to fill workforce gaps. In the early 2000s many trusts looked beyond Europe to meet nursing shortages. More recently, as tougher immigration and language rules took hold, a growing proportion came from the EU – though not enough to plug the gap.

Now we have all the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. We need urgent clarity on the status of current EU nationals working in the health and care systems. And we must recognise that for the foreseeable future, NHS trusts will need support to recruit and retain staff from overseas. The government says it will improve the home-grown supply, but that will clearly take time.

These problems have developed in plain sight. But leadership on this has been muddled or trumped by worries over funding. Responsibility for NHS workforce strategy is disjointed. We need a co-ordinated, realistic, long-term strategy to ensure that frontline organisations have the right number of staff with the right skills in the right place to deliver high quality care.

We must act now. This year's long-delayed workforce plan – to be published soon by Health Education England – could be a good place to start. But what we need is a more fundamental approach – with a clear vision of how the NHS must develop its workforce to meet these challenges, and a commitment to make it happen. 

Saffron Cordery is the director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers