21 min

Sonya Wallbank, supporting health and wellbeing in the NHS The Compassionate Leadership Interview

    • Management

Dr Sonya Wallbank is People Director for an integrated care system, and part-time senior consultant to the King’s Fund.
Sonya started her career in banking. The birth of her children sparked an interest in psychology, which led on to an undergraduate degree and then a doctorate in psychology. Working alongside the NHS in Leicester she explored restorative approaches that allow you to undertake challenging work whilst looking after your own mental and physical health.
She has spent the last few years in NHS England and improvement supporting staff in the pandemic.
In 2013 Sonya’s work on restorative clinical supervision for NHS Midlands was a finalist in the Nursing Times Awards. This recognised that staff needed an opportunity to think about burn out, and their stress responses, and to increase their compassion satisfaction, and therefore the pleasure theyfound in their job.
Nowadays Sonya works most of her week in organisational design and improvement for an Integrated Care System and one day for the Kings Fund. She says the ICS work brings a sense of truth and delivery into the King’s Fund work.
She says the work she did during the pandemic is the most significant thing that she has done during her working life. She says NHS England and Improvement “addressed the basic needs first”, namely a hot drink and food at work, and food shopping for home. With knowledge from other countries, they were able to help staff understand what they were facing and think through their response in advance.
They looked at the experience of the person outside as well as in work, and considered what it would be like for health workers going home and having to explain the impact of the pandemic to their partner and children.
2020 brought a fresh understanding into the health service of the critical importance of health and wellbeing. Sonya says that the NHS needs to see money spent on health and wellbeing as an investment in its long-term future, reducing staff absence and turnover. The pandemic has shown that “you can’t be expected to come in and do this work and not be touched by
it.”
In the 2021 NHS Staff Survey 33% of staff said that their trust takes positive action on health and wellbeing. That still leaves two thirds of staff in a situation where their trust is not taking positive action, or at least, if it is they aren’t aware of it. Sonya acknowledges that Trusts are still very wary of being accused of wasting public money, but they need to appreciate that caring for staff is essential to the future of the NHS.
Nonetheless Sonya would agree with Michael West when he says there has been a “sea change” in the leadership approach adopted by the NHS. She says we have reached a peak in the innovation-adoption curve. People can see that collaborative working across boundaries is the future. However, there is a need for an investment in the associated infrastructure.
Sonya believes a compassionate leadership approach is the way forward, but she recognises that it splits people, that there are those who believe it is a softer and less effective option.
Her biggest career mistake was to take on an executive role in an organisation that was ‘broken.’ Ultimately, she could not find enough allies to make the differences she wanted to make.
Dame Emily Lawson is someone who has inspired Sonya on her journey. She led the PPE and vaccination programmes during the pandemic.
Sonya’s favourite book is ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie. She would also recommend ‘Dare to Lead’ by Brene Brown.
Her self-care regime involves surrounding herself with people she loves, doing things that she enjoys, and maintaining a sense of humour. She also tries to keep enough energy in reserve for her home life.
Finally, it is about objectively observing the transient nature of some of the challenges we face.
Her advice to her 20-year-old self would be “keep going” and “trust your instincts.”

Dr Sonya Wallbank is People Director for an integrated care system, and part-time senior consultant to the King’s Fund.
Sonya started her career in banking. The birth of her children sparked an interest in psychology, which led on to an undergraduate degree and then a doctorate in psychology. Working alongside the NHS in Leicester she explored restorative approaches that allow you to undertake challenging work whilst looking after your own mental and physical health.
She has spent the last few years in NHS England and improvement supporting staff in the pandemic.
In 2013 Sonya’s work on restorative clinical supervision for NHS Midlands was a finalist in the Nursing Times Awards. This recognised that staff needed an opportunity to think about burn out, and their stress responses, and to increase their compassion satisfaction, and therefore the pleasure theyfound in their job.
Nowadays Sonya works most of her week in organisational design and improvement for an Integrated Care System and one day for the Kings Fund. She says the ICS work brings a sense of truth and delivery into the King’s Fund work.
She says the work she did during the pandemic is the most significant thing that she has done during her working life. She says NHS England and Improvement “addressed the basic needs first”, namely a hot drink and food at work, and food shopping for home. With knowledge from other countries, they were able to help staff understand what they were facing and think through their response in advance.
They looked at the experience of the person outside as well as in work, and considered what it would be like for health workers going home and having to explain the impact of the pandemic to their partner and children.
2020 brought a fresh understanding into the health service of the critical importance of health and wellbeing. Sonya says that the NHS needs to see money spent on health and wellbeing as an investment in its long-term future, reducing staff absence and turnover. The pandemic has shown that “you can’t be expected to come in and do this work and not be touched by
it.”
In the 2021 NHS Staff Survey 33% of staff said that their trust takes positive action on health and wellbeing. That still leaves two thirds of staff in a situation where their trust is not taking positive action, or at least, if it is they aren’t aware of it. Sonya acknowledges that Trusts are still very wary of being accused of wasting public money, but they need to appreciate that caring for staff is essential to the future of the NHS.
Nonetheless Sonya would agree with Michael West when he says there has been a “sea change” in the leadership approach adopted by the NHS. She says we have reached a peak in the innovation-adoption curve. People can see that collaborative working across boundaries is the future. However, there is a need for an investment in the associated infrastructure.
Sonya believes a compassionate leadership approach is the way forward, but she recognises that it splits people, that there are those who believe it is a softer and less effective option.
Her biggest career mistake was to take on an executive role in an organisation that was ‘broken.’ Ultimately, she could not find enough allies to make the differences she wanted to make.
Dame Emily Lawson is someone who has inspired Sonya on her journey. She led the PPE and vaccination programmes during the pandemic.
Sonya’s favourite book is ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ by Dale Carnegie. She would also recommend ‘Dare to Lead’ by Brene Brown.
Her self-care regime involves surrounding herself with people she loves, doing things that she enjoys, and maintaining a sense of humour. She also tries to keep enough energy in reserve for her home life.
Finally, it is about objectively observing the transient nature of some of the challenges we face.
Her advice to her 20-year-old self would be “keep going” and “trust your instincts.”

21 min