As the Director of Communications for one of the biggest and busiest acute and teaching hospitals in Europe, Laura Skaife-Knight is under incredible pressure.
She is directly responsible to the trust board of Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, communicates to a workforce of 14,500, plus satisfying the demands of a thirsty national and international media, regulators and politicians.
“I never switch off and I never go anywhere without my phone,” she says: “It’s incredibly stressful, but I really feel that I am privileged to do what I do. I live and breathe my work.”
Laura - who is one of the youngest Directors of Communications in the country - attributes her ability to handle her high-level job to the grounding she received during her three years studying American Studies as an undergraduate at Lancaster. “The degree I chose was so wide-ranging that it gave me a fantastic grounding to do anything, and the year I spent as part of it in the USA, on my own in another country was the making of me.”
Her twin passions - writing and the USA - had brought her from her home in Sunderland to Lancaster to study American Studies. She knew it was ranked as one of the top courses in the country for the subject and she is fiercely competitive. She had also been charmed by the beauty of the campus on the open day. “I felt at home there straight away,” she says.”I was very fortunate to be in a college with people who are still my friends now.”
She relished the quality of teaching she received, from lecturers who were global leaders in their field. Sociology and cultural studies drew her in, but the highlight for her was a course on the civil rights movement of the 1930s-1950s.
The real making of Laura was the year she spent in the USA at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville: “It was the best year of my life. I learned more about myself in that time than I ever have since. The power to graft that I have now, I learned from Virginia. I came back a different person. It gave me the belief that I could be and do whatever I wanted to be if I applied myself.”
Readjusting for her final years was helped by the close friends she had made there. Competition is crucial to Laura. She played hockey whilst still at school and continued to play for the Northern League, whilst at Lancaster, but she also enjoyed many weekends exploring the Lake District with friends from Grizedale. On a daily basis, the wooded and green campus provided the perfect place for her to run and keep fit.
During her year back in Lancaster, she decided on a career in print journalism and after graduation went to study for a Master's in Journalism at the University of Sheffield backed by a bursary. She landed a job as a news reporter at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, where she found herself tackling a large number of health-related stories. This prompted a change of direction. After less than two years she decided to leave journalism and work in the NHS, as a Communications Officer at University Hospitals of Leicester NHS Trust.
With the help of hard work and top quality mentoring and life coaching, Laura speeded through the ranks to gain a Communications Manager job at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust within three years of joining the NHS. She has also acquired an Advanced Certificate from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
“I’m working with some of the most caring, loyal and dedicated people in the country,” she says. ”At the end of every day, I go home knowing that what I do makes a difference to people’s lives, and I am not even working on the front line.”
Much is expected of her. The worst scenario for her would be for the Chief Executive to find out about something happening in the Trust that Laura does not know herself. In a constantly changing NHS, she has to be on the alert , constantly ahead of the game and ready to justify her existence when economies are being sought.
Working at Laura’s level requires personal sacrifices, but she accepts the stress because of her conviction that her Trust’s work really matters. As she explains: “We are dealing with life and death here at Nottingham University Hospitals - so the stakes are high.”