Political Interview: Rob Webster on how ‘everything he does’ is guided by his values and his family

Chief Executive of South West Yorkshire NHS Foundation Trust Rob Webster pictured at Fieldhead Hospital, Wakefield. Picture by Simon Hulme
Chief Executive of South West Yorkshire NHS Foundation Trust Rob Webster pictured at Fieldhead Hospital, Wakefield. Picture by Simon Hulme
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Rob Webster ‘fell into’ the civil service and has spent the last three decades in leading healthcare roles. Lindsay Pantry reports on how ‘everything he does’ is guided by his values, beliefs and the influence of his family.

WHETHER you’re a “granny in Grimethorpe or a young offender in Wetherby”, Rob Webster wants to help you fulfil your potential.

And as chief executive of South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, he believes in the power of his staff to help do that. So much so, he meets every single new member of staff and asks them the same question - why they work come to work for the NHS. Many he says, give the same answer he would: “to make a difference”.

His approach to leadership has been shaped by the person he has become, going to university instead of the shipyard in his hometown and rising through the civil service; and shaped by his family, his son George, who has Down’s Syndrome yet “exceeds all” he thought possible, and the memory of his “popular, charismatic, generous” brother, who took his own life a decade ago, his loss leaving a “substantial” impact on those who loved him.

Webster has been at the helm at South West Yorkshire for a little over two years, running mental health, community, learning disability and wellbeing services across Barnsley, Calderdale, Kirklees and Wakefield. But he also leads West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership, the collection of 32 health trust, councils and organisations collectively in charge of the £5.5bn annual healthcare budgets for 2.6m people across a vast swathe of Yorkshire.

Its purpose, he says, is to come together to “spend that money better”.

“The partnership is an antidote to the usual top-down reorganisation that you see in the NHS,” he said. “It’s built from the bottom up, by local leaders working together because it’s the right thing to do, not because they are told what to do.

“I learnt a long time ago that it’s easier to be yourself than pretend to be someone else. As a leader, I think you have got to be authentic because people can tell when you’re not.

“The thing I always do in every job that I start, whether it’s working in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit or as frontline chief exec, is tell people what I believe in, and that comes down to the belief that we can make a difference. That people have potential, what we have do is create the culture for them to succeed.”

He is guided by his family, he says. His son George, who at 18, has taught him “about people and potential and the way in which our systems work”, and his father, who has a long history of health problems and is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“We bring our whole selves to work and the things that we find in our own lives guide us,” Mr Webster said.

“With my son George for example, I’ve got two lives. People reading this article, many will say ‘that’s George’s dad’, they don’t know my name. They will see him at Parkrun, marshalling or running, they’ll see him speaking on a public platform, or they’ll see him acting or dancing in a show, and what he’s taught me is that he is probably the most positive person I know.

“He always thinks he can do something and he tends to end up doing it, and exceeding all the things I thought were possible.”

He says the partnership has three big challenges, starting with health inequalities.

“We know where you live will define how long you live and how well you live. If you travel from North Leeds to South Leeds, it’s 10 miles. Every mile you walk, you lose a year of life expectancy. Second, tackle unwarranted variation - the postcode lottery exists and shouldn’t; and the third is that we have to live within the resources that we’ve got.

“As a partnership, we’ve started to do that. We want to focus on the things that will make the biggest difference.”

And those things are cancer, stroke and mental health. To reduce cancer deaths, it’s starting with tackling smoking; late diagnosis, particularly in poorer communities where people are seeking help later; and lung cancer, which remains the biggest killer. For stroke care, the aim is to prevent people having a stroke in the first place, but also ensuring access to five hyperacute stroke units across the patch.

Finally, it is treating mental health as a priority, which has already led to investments in an eating disorder unit, perinatal services for expectant and new mothers, and a new child and mental health unit in Leeds, increasing the number of beds for children from eight to 22.

“We know that if you have a long term condition, it can affect your mental health. And if you have a mental health condition, it can affect your physical health. Modern systems look after you physical, mental and social needs.”

Speaking in the week that marked World Suicide Prevention Day, one of the aims is to reduce the number of suicides by people within the mental health service by 75 per cent, and the number of overall suicides by 10 per cent.

The first step, he says, is talking,

“All suicides are preventable, suicide is not inevitable. This is really important. Something like 28 percent of suicides in West Yorkshire are in touch with mental health services, which means the vast majority of people who die by suicide are not - but they will be in touch with somebody.

“From personal experience, I know how important it is to talk about this, because my brother died by suicide in 2003. He was 32. He’d never spoken about it. He was popular, charismatic, generous, lovely man, and everyone was shocked when he died. It took me 10 years to talk about it, and that’s because suicide carries a stigma and so does mental health. It’s like a stain on the back of your life really.”

It wasn’t until 2013, when he was asked to make a ‘pledge’ as part of the Time to Change campaign, when Mr Webster pledged to talk about his brother’s death more, and he wrote a blog post entitled ‘saying yes to life despite everything’.

“The response to that was really phenomenal,” he said. “People who I didn’t know approached to me to say, this happened to me to. People who I worked with said this was part of my family, and it became really easy to talk about. In the subsequent years, what we’ve seen in society is that people are much more willing to talk about mental health, and increasingly, about suicide, and it’s incredibly important that we do.

“Many people think if they are worried about somebody, that they should never talk about them being suicidal, Actually the right thing to do is to ask. The right thing to do is to talk. The right thing to do is to direct people to the help available.

“I know in the case of my brother, that he’d lost hope. He felt helpless. And lack of hope, and helplessness, are the things that kill you. There is always hope, and there is always help. It’s important to reflect on that, because the impact on my life, on my family’s lives, and the lives of his kids, and too many people, is substantial.

“Suicide is still the biggest killer of young men, and it is something that we can improve.”

*To talk to the Samaritans, in confidence, call 116 123 or visit www.samaritans.org

Three decades in healthcare

ROB Webster has worked in healthcare since 1990, taking a variety of national leadership roles in the Department of Health, and working within the Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office during his time as Prime Minister.

He joined South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust as chief executive in May 2016 and is responsible for leading the organisation and its 4,600 staff. Mr Webster is also the lead chief executive for West Yorkshire and Harrogate Health and Care Partnership; this sees him bringing together West Yorkshire health and care leaders, organisations and communities to develop local plans for improved health, care and finances over the next five years.