Opinion: Flexible Working | Sarah Ashford, Scrub Nurse & SFA, St Helens & Knowsley NHS Foundation Trust
As featured in Women in the NHS.
I believe that being a nurse is one of the most rewarding careers out there. But as the latest batch of graduates settle into their training roles, it’s heartbreaking to think that in just three years’ time up to 28% of them will leave the NHS for good.
The number of nurses and health visitors resigning their posts in hospitals and community services in England within three years of joining has risen almost 50% since 2013-14, and the number of current vacancies for registered nurses in the NHS stands close to 40,000.
“Burnout, rigid scheduling and ever-growing pressures are pushing talented staff out.”
What I find most upsetting is that the majority of these nurses feel as if they have no option but to leave the roles they’ve spent years training for. Burnout, rigid scheduling and ever-growing pressures are pushing talented staff out. Even more upsettingly, it’s women — who typically take on greater caring responsibilities at home — who are feeling this pressure most acutely.
With COVID-19 having inspired so many talented women to enter the nursing profession, now is a crucial time to create and launch workforce management systems that are sustainable, and that will nurture these new starters (of all genders, as well as their veteran colleagues) throughout long and fulfilling NHS careers.
At the start of my career I spent five years working in Australia, where the workforce systems allow for staff to have a say in their shift timings and scheduling. This was a liberating change from having to retro-fit my life to pre-made rotas.
“When I had my daughter, it was almost impossible to juggle the demands of new-parenthood with my unpredictable rota, long hours and randomly assigned days off.”
On returning to the UK, I struggled to find this level of flexibility in my new full-time roles. When I had my daughter, it was almost impossible to juggle the demands of new-parenthood with my unpredictable rota, long hours and randomly assigned days off. After spending some time working for an agency, I craved the stability and consistency of being employed by an NHS Trust, but I didn’t want to sacrifice control over my work schedule. So, when I was offered the chance to join the staff bank at St Helens and Whiston Hospitals, I felt real relief that a solution existed for me.
As a bank member, I can apply for vacant shifts via an app-based platform, whilst still accruing annual leave and growing my NHS pension. I can work late shifts and weekends when I choose. This means that my husband and I can share childcare responsibilities more easily, which has made a huge difference to my own mental and physical energy levels and well-being.
Nurses, like everyone else, have varied personal and professional commitments. When there is no alternative other than working long, exhausting full-time shifts, it’s inevitable that many people – sadly, most often women – are going to find themselves effectively forced out of the careers they love.
“Parents [should be able] to book the same days off each week so that they can secure a consistent nursery schedule for their children.”
If managers focused more attention on enabling tailored adjustments to workforce planning, they could make a huge difference to nurses’ daily lives and support them to stay in their jobs. An example of this is allowing parents to book the same days off each week so that they can secure a consistent nursery schedule for their children. The benefits from such an approach quickly compound, from raised staff morale to improved continuity of patient care.
Let’s make our voices heard by decision makers: flexible, people-first working must no longer be a luxury only on offer to a minority of NHS staff. Only by embracing change can we attract and retain a happy, diverse and talented workforce.