As a nuclear submarine engineer in the Navy, Gareth thrived off solving problems in a technical environment working alongside good people.
His new job as Deputy Head of Estates Maintenance at University Hospital Southampton (UHS) NHS Foundation Trust presents more than enough of all of these aspects on a daily basis.
Although it may sound like something of a cliché, every day is challenging and different. This is hardly surprising when you’re supporting a major acute hospital that serves 1.9 million people living in Southampton and south Hampshire as well as wider specialist services to approximately 3.7 million people in trauma and orthopaedics, children’s intensive care, cardiac care, oncology and neurological care amongst others.
Gareth is Deputy Head of a department of around 125 people, and through line management is directly responsible for approximately 100. It takes planning and resilience to solve problems. But, similarly to life in the Services, they don’t wait for you to be perfectly equipped. They occur as and when, and often need to be dealt with immediately.
From his second week, Gareth was heavily involved in solving problems that directly affected patients and their families. But being able to see some of the impact first-hand really helps to give a sense of perspective. He says: “Every day I get to make a difference and it’s one of the most rewarding parts of my job – it gives me a real buzz.”
As well as the more traditional estates buildings and engineering services, Gareth also oversees the Clinical Engineering team, responsible for roughly 34,000 pieces of medical equipment – from anaesthetic machines to defibrillators. He says: “Safety is of course a huge priority – the hospital is a complicated place with many pressures and often conflicting priorities.” He adds: “Ultimately, the teams must make sure the equipment is safe to support often high risk medical care and it's part of my job to make sure they have the right resources to do this.”
And with so much to learn, the curve has been ‘almost vertical’. Gareth says: “Although many of the engineering principles are the same, the context is different. For example, whereas I understand steam in a nuclear submarine context, it is distributed and used differently in a hospital.” Aside from this, there were other specific gaps in his knowledge, but rather than deter him, these actually attracted him even more to the role. He says: “I thought this was a particularly good role for exposing myself to new areas of expertise that had been limited in my career in the Navy such as procurement for example.”
Gareth was also attracted by the leadership aspects of the role. As much as he’s been surprised by how much he’s taken to healthcare estates management, he has particularly enjoyed the opportunity to start to develop his team of people and utilise his leadership skills. As he explains: “I need to ensure that the middle managers have the proper authority and support to make decisions on their own, and not feel as though they have to ask permission. Although I’m an engineer at heart, where I can I’d rather encourage creativity in the team than offer immediate solutions.” He adds: “My main priority is to ensure my team can deliver and be satisfied in their own jobs.”
This is particularly important when parts of the job start to feel overwhelming. He says: “After I’ve gone from meeting to meeting and the to-do list is growing, it feels really important to have a team of people around you who can help. Because ultimately, this is integral to delivering the best service possible to the people that UHS serves.”
In his role, Gareth also has the chance to have input into infrastructure projects that engage his engineering creativity – for example the commissioning of anaerobic digesters that take food waste and produce biogas that is then used to generate electricity and heat. He says: “I love identifying areas where we can streamline processes and ensure real value for money, so that we can invest back into supporting patient care.”
With no NHS background, it could be said that UHS took something of a risk in hiring Gareth. His experience however, is that those above him are forward looking and open to new ideas and views, able to see the advantages of Gareth approaching the role with ‘a fresh pair of eyes’. He says: “In the Navy, you need to assess, and make good quality decisions, quickly. Similarly, this job is all about managing risk and deciding where to apply resources.”
The most enjoyable parts of Gareth’s role are seeing the difference his team makes to patients, and when they’re generating their own ideas and solutions to the challenges they face. He says: “No profession is above reproach but I work with a superb team, in a superb organisation. Yes, there are frustrations, and processes can be slow, but people genuinely care about their roles and are passionate about delivering the best service they can to patients.”