Career advice

Breakfast with the chief nurse: breaking the ice with new and existing staff

How drop-in sessions offer a chance to hear concerns and resolve issues

How drop-in sessions offer a chance to hear concerns and resolve issues


UCLH’s ‘breakfast with the chief nurse’ events have attracted more staff every month.

Being served breakfast by the chief nurse may be unusual, but for nursing staff at one London trust it is helping to break the ice.

‘For me, it feels very comfortable,’ says Flo Panel-Coates, chief nurse at University College London Hospitals (UCLH) NHS Foundation Trust for the past four years. ‘Staff serve our patients and each other every day, and this is a very small gesture I can make.’

A chance to hear what’s going on

For the past nine months or so, nursing staff have been invited to have breakfast with Ms Panel-Coates, with the events held at least once a month. ‘It’s an opportunity for me to meet and listen to our staff,’ she says.

‘It gives me the chance to thank them but, more importantly, to hear what’s going on. I try to be as visible as I can, but it’s hard to get around almost 4,000 nursing staff.’

‘We have such a mix of individuals and they get to meet each other in a very different setting’

Holding the hour-long drop-in sessions at breakfast time means that night staff can also attend. ‘They can grab something on their way home. They don’t have to stay if they’ve done a long shift, but it’s good for me to see them,’ says Ms Panel-Coates.

Providing food is integral. ‘It’s a great leveller,’ she says. ‘It’s something that brings people together and of course it’s a fundamental need. Often I find that many staff in the NHS – including nurses and midwives – don’t pay attention to self-care as much as we all should.’


New starters are invited to the breakfasts as part of their induction.

Welcoming new starters

Funded through a charity associated with UCLH, the initiative originally involved inviting staff to have breakfast in the month of their birthday, but this proved too challenging logistically.

Sessions are now open to all but have focused on new starters over the past three months, with each receiving an invitation at their induction. The breakfasts have attracted more staff each time, with upwards of 40 people usually attending.

‘I think it’s hard for people to come and knock on my door and say they’re really anxious about something... So, whenever possible, I go to them’

‘I talk about why it’s important for people early on to have a connection,’ says Ms Panel-Coates. ‘It turns into a really informal chat. Part of the intent is for people to find allies in lots of different places. We have such a mix of individuals and they get to meet each other in a very different setting.’

For those new to the organisation, Ms Panel-Coates is keen to find out what their initial experiences have been, including whether the practicalities of starting a new job have been addressed – such as uniforms, knowing who their mentor is and where to go if they need help.

‘We’ve picked up some issues, including accommodation. It means I can help support someone quite quickly,’ says Ms Panel-Coates.


Chief nurse Ms Panel-Coates, right, enjoys the chance for an informal chat with staff.

The trust recently introduced a new electronic records system, and held several breakfasts in advance so staff had the opportunity to raise any concerns. ‘I’m asking whether they have had enough training and if they feel anything is missing,’ she says. ‘I’ve been able to accelerate some minor issues.’

Sometimes staff will voice more worrying concerns. ‘I think it’s hard for people to come and knock on my door and say they’re really anxious about something,’ says Ms Panel-Coates.

‘You could be the nicest, kindest, most supportive individual but the very nature of walking into the trust offices can be intimidating. So whenever possible, I go to them. If I can make it easier, staff will tell you – some in front of the group and others more quietly.’

Change the dynamic

She uses various techniques to get the ball rolling. ‘I’ll say, we were having difficulties with this last month, has it got any better? If I can help them recognise that we know things aren’t perfect, but we’re striving to be better, it makes it a little bit easier for them to tell me what they think,’ says Ms Panel-Coates.

‘I want to make sure that any misunderstandings don’t turn into anything more. If we can get a sense of things early on, it changes the dynamic for the relationship with us as an employer.’

Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with some staff using social media to share their experiences. ‘Some have said they’ve never had the opportunity to meet with their chief nurse before, and they would have had to make an appointment,’ says Ms Panel-Coates. ‘What’s humbled me is how much this means to some of those who attend.’

‘The best part of my job’

She believes the events are mutually beneficial. ‘For me, this is the best part of my job. It keeps my feet on the ground and is a really rich data source. I love it.

‘Our staff are very hard-working, honest, driven and dedicated. When they share something with you, it’s usually something they’ve tried to resolve themselves and it enables us to deal with it quickly.’

Above all, Ms Panel-Coates wants staff to feel valued. ‘We create spaces for them to share, talk and get to know each other,’ she says.


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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