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24th October 2014

The little things

Save moneyIt’s budget setting time again, and a manager’s thoughts turn to saving money. But how can we engage staff and service users in making sure costs don’t run away with us and we get the most out of every pound?

I have become a little obsessed this week. To be honest, its not just this week; I have a reputation for being a tyrant over waste in the workplace and my regular bulletins to staff about saving money have resulted in some rather unfortunate nicknames being attached to me. However, I have the daunting task of setting my budgets for the next financial year and so need to manage the ever-increasing spend with the often-depleted resources.


Whether you work for a state-run service, a non-profit or an independent private organisation, you will be aware of the pressures of having to provide excellent services for limited costs. There are some areas of spend that cannot be cut without huge impact on outcomes, notably staff. As the largest element of your budget, human resources must be of sufficient volume and quality to meet regulatory requirements and deliver excellent care. Making savings in terms of the number of staff in the team or the training and support they receive is a risky strategy and managers have little leeway here.

However, it is possible to reduce some of your spend on staffing without compromising quality. An example might be in the way you manage unplanned absences. Historically, the managers in my service would hear that a member of the team was off sick and immediately lift the phone to the agency. Our agency spend was spiraling and risking our ability to invest in other areas, so something had to be done.

Uncomfortable truths

We hit on the idea of sharing the painful truth about cost at a team level. By providing each work area with a breakdown of the budget allocated to staffing and the costs of covering absences, we raised awareness of the problem. Each team was given their ‘virtual’ budget for staff in hours. We explained the comparative cost of overtime, internal bank workers and external agency workers, and allowed line managers to choose how they covered the shifts. The parameters were set in terms of safe and legal staffing levels, so we did not risk being under-resourced, but we allowed team leaders to be creative about how they arranged cover.

Over the financial year, we reported back on the cost and use of human resources to each team, demonstrating their performance against the budget. By doing things like only covering absence at key times, using less expensive staff grades where safe and reasonable to do so and considering the travel costs for workers called in, we started to make small but significant savings. Each team became rather competitive about their ability to be frugal, in fact, so much so that we awarded an incentive to the team that had made the best use of their resource at the end of the year.

The cost of learning

Another cost centre ripe for pruning was our training budget. Once again, the default response to a new regulatory requirement or service development was to bring in external trainers and lay on study days and seminars. This meant great groups of workers being hauled out of their comfortable care services and made to sit in classrooms while we fed them information, which they would largely forget the minute they got back.

A small exercise in reviewing our workforce’s skills mix provided us with some interesting information about the calibre and talent within our team. We employed people who could coach, teach, demonstrate and encourage other staff in a wide variety of subjects and areas. We were spending money on bringing in experts that we already had! Internal staff development became more internal; we worked to grow our own talent, and made more of the experiential and workplace-based training.

Of course, there was still a need to get external expertise in some areas, but we made small but important cost savings on training overall, with the side benefit of raising staff confidence in their ability to influence and educate others.

It’s all about the waste

Right down at the bottom of our list of costs, but nonetheless important, were elements such as disposables, printing, phones, fuel… those things you have to have and often forget about the significance of. I had one of those wake up moments when I realized to my horror that the annual cost of a specific type of cleansing wipe was over £15,000. Fifteen grand on wet wipes?!

The reaction I had to this news was so powerful it made me think about what else I might be spending on things I thought little about. Loo roll, paper towels, laundry liquid… I became somewhat fixated. I went about looking at these items in a whole new light. Was it really necessary to invest so much precious resource in these mundane items?

I shared this lightning bolt moment with my team leaders as a way of explaining my obsession with consumables, but I was surprised by their reaction. Not only were they as horrified as I was about the cost of such trivial things as wet wipes, they immediately went to work on their staff teams about making best use of these products. All of the staff became expert at measuring exactly the amount of liquid needed for a wash. Every paper-towel dispenser was filled correctly to ensure only one towel came out at a time. The wet wipe boxes were never left open to dry out.


Little notices appeared about the place; how best to use the dishwasher; is your kettle too full? Keep the door closed to retain heat; wipe your feet carefully, floor cleaning costs money. The service users were included in this, as we began to encourage recycling, composting, re-using. Little rivalries emerged in how frugal we were being and I was happy to report back on the reductions in spend.

The message for staff and service users was clear. If we spend £15,000 on wipes, then that’s £15,000 less to spend on important things to make service users’ lives better. It’s not about filling the pockets of the shareholders, it’s about making sure the money is used wisely and for the best outcomes.

There’s really nothing wrong with obsessing about that, is there?

Ginny Tyler – QCS Learning Disability Expert Contributor

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