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23 April 2021
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Project Wingman: a lesson in leadership

By Dr Kim Nurse

FMLM Trainee Steering Group Representative for London and Social Media Lead

"We offer NHS staff 15-20 minutes of escape from the decisions they have to take every day, because coronavirus has increased the pressure on all of them so much. We give them a cup of team or frothy coffee and snacks, all delivered with an airline first class smile. And we talk to them."

 - Emma Henderson, CEO Project Wingman

Project Wingman is an example of how simple things can make an enormous difference.

For many NHS staff, this past year has probably been one of the most challenging times of their career. Staff are exhausted, working long hours day in day out, witnessing traumatic cases, supporting families often only via the telephone or video call, with the added burden and constant worry they may take Covid-19 home to their family and loved ones. Staff rooms and offices were converted into donning and doffing stations, and the relentless shifts in PPE in an already demanding job has become something that no one could truly have ever anticipated.

Wellbeing has always been an important, but perhaps neglected, aspect of working in the NHS. Hospitals are built with patients, not staff, in mind. Staff rooms and offices often appear to be an after-thought, squeezed into the tiniest square foot, and most NHS canteens are now private enterprises with little or no space for staff to sit down or relax and are expensive for staff to use on a daily basis. Doctor’s messes are often in the basement or tucked away in a small corner of the hospital, far too small for the number that require it. More than ever during Covid-19, what was required was a space for staff to relax and escape the ward for even just a few minutes; somewhere to have a quick refreshment, a cup of tea and a sit down, with or without colleagues.

The airline industry has been severely affected by the pandemic. In March 2019, airline staff found themselves furloughed, grounded or made redundant by the Covid-19 crisis. Captain Emma Henderson and Captain David Fielding founded ‘Project Wingman’ to harness the talents of over 5,000 volunteers from the airline industry to set up first class lounges in over 70 hospitals across the UK, from Inverness to Brighton, to provide space, refreshments and emotional support to NHS staff. Crew from all major UK airlines have participated in running the lounges, providing food and refreshments and creating a space in which NHS workers can relax and de-stress.

Established within days of the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Project Wingman quickly grew, and at its peak 73 first class lounges were operating in hospitals across the country, with more than 6,500 volunteers from 28 different carriers from the UK and beyond. Most recently they launched ‘wingman wheels’, their first mobile lounge. It is clear now that many staff want wellbeing lounges to become a permanent fixture within the walls of a hospital.

There have been numerous benefits for both airline and NHS staff. Airline staff have said that over the last year, Project Wingman has given them a sense of purpose, pride and a feeling of unity that they wouldn’t have had otherwise during this time. ‘Fly into health’ has been launched, recognising transferable skills, aimed at linking wingman recruits with potential opportunities in hospitals and trusts. Airline staff are returning to the sector with new skills and fresh perspective and trainee pilots and airline crew have had the opportunity to develop leadership skills, by taking up leadership positions at Project Wingman.

Prior to Project Wingman, most hospitals lacked any communal rest areas where staff from all departments could congregate, many did not have access to free tea or coffee and Project Wingman has demonstrated just how important these spaces are. For the first time, colleagues from across the hospital have space to come together; porters, domestics, allied healthcare professionals, nursing staff, hospital staff and managers, including paramedics and transport staff from outside of the hospital have a space to take a break, heat their food in a microwave and enjoy a cup of tea.

Project Wingman is a grass roots, bottom-up organisation; a group of motivated, passionate people who needed a purpose and saw a need for their skills. They came together and made something happen. The project highlights the power of community to address needs and community issues. The skills and talent are often among us, and with the right support, enthusiasm and empowerment, anything is possible.

Wellbeing matters not only during a pandemic, and should be a permanent priority for all NHS organisations. Yet it is difficult to say whether wellbeing hubs would have been created without Project Wingman and it is very unlikely they would have been developed without the push of the pandemic. You can’t look after patients without looking after your staff and overall, wellbeing hubs are a relatively inexpensive, low resource intervention, many of which have been supported throughout this last year by external organisations, sponsors and the ever-generous public. Let’s hope hospitals and organisations continue to recognise the importance of these spaces long after the pandemic has passed.

Project Wingman is an inspiring example of collaborative leadership that truly aligns with FMLM’s standards and values, and the impact of their work is enjoyed and appreciated on a daily basis across the UK. The pandemic has highlighted numerous examples of collaboration between the public and private sectors; and if we continue to harness each other’s skills and work as a community, imagine what more could be achieved.

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