Imagine you went to the office one day, sat at your desk, and said – this is where I will work for the next 40 years.
If that sounds unlikely in this day and age, it is striking that there are quite a few members of staff who have clocked up that length of service.
Here is one small corner of the NHS, perhaps, that has found an answer to the recruitment and retention challenge.
Today, I am talking to one of these long serving employees. She arrived in London at the tender age of 19 from her hometown far away in the North East, accompanying her ‘childhood sweetheart’ and future husband.
“When we moved down here I went into pub management initially. I used to run a couple of pubs – the George in Tower Bridge Road and the Oak in Portobello.”
They moved around before finally settling for good in the capital, where my interviewee replied to a job ad at the Brompton, thinking “I’ll just see how I get on. I’ll only be there for a short while.”
Now, four decades later, I am speaking to her just before she leaves her department for what she thinks is the last time (although there is a twist in the tale, which I will come to later). “I don’t know how I am going to get on. I think I will be very emotional when the day comes,” she says.
I can understand this. My interviewee is a warm, big-hearted, much-loved figure who might be described as a ‘character’ (she has tattoos and brightly coloured hair) as well as ‘someone who gets things done’ and ‘just a great person to work with’ – all terms that have actually been used by her colleagues.
And it is difficult to sum up what 40 years in one office is like. You see so much and go through so many changes.
There are the big, universal upheavals to the workplace – the arrival of computers, the gradual disappearance of paper printing. “Every order that went out had to be typed. There used to be six copies. We had our own print room in the basement of Fulham Wing where everyone used to queue at to get their printing.”
Then there are changes to workplace culture – some of them undoubtedly for the better (“You could never get anything done on a Friday afternoon because everyone was in the pub”) – others perhaps a shame to see disappear (“We used to have so many staff parties…”).
Covid, of course, has also had an impact. “I really miss the Friday yoga sessions that used to be run on site by a member of staff – they stopped because of the pandemic.”
Then there are the changes to the NHS landscape: “Originally we were just the Brompton, then we were joined by the National Heart Hospital and then London Chest, to become the National Heart and Chest Hospital. Then we merged with Harefield.”
There is one story though which stands out, and conveys more than anything what it feels like to work somewhere for so long. In 2017, my interviewee was suddenly diagnosed with cancer and, by a cruel twist of fate, lost her husband – the childhood boyfriend she came to London with – that same year.
“I was off for three months but went mad staying at home. I just wanted to come back to work,” she said. “If you’ve lost your husband you need to come to work to have interaction. The people you work with are not just work colleagues.”
“I tell you what I find really touching – I got a certificate of excellence from the Harefield Theatre team.” She also received a staff award.
“The hospital was a really, really lovely place to work. It was enjoyable coming to work because the people were so nice. Everybody got on with everybody and everybody knew each other. It was just like being part of the family.”
And that’s the point – if you work for 40 years in one place, your work colleagues feel like part of your family. They are there at the big changes in your life, and there to support you when you have a bad year.
The status and reputation of your organisation also helps. “I feel really proud to say I’ve worked at the Royal Brompton because when you say it, everyone knows what you mean – it gives you a sense of pride.”
In the end, work was so rewarding that my interviewee says she can “count on the fingers of my hands the number of days out of 40 years that I didn’t enjoy coming into work.”
“I think there is something special about here. I think it’s the people who work here. People stay for a long time.”
True to form, I bump into her a few weeks later on the street outside the hospital, where she is coming back to work on a temporary contract.
I express surprise and make the usual joke about not being able to stay away. I receive a big smile and a hug in return. It feels like I’ve been co-opted as a new member of the work family.