I'll tell you something: The NHS can't afford to ignore the demand for flexible working

Why is the UK's largest employer struggling to meet the requirements of today's workforce?

With more than 1.5 million staff, the NHS is by far the biggest employer in the UK. But with some aspects of this institution remaining largely unchanged since its inception 70 years ago comes an inability to adapt quickly and flex to accommodate the ever-changing requirements of today’s society.

A simple nine-to-five job is no longer the norm, and with a large proportion of people balancing work with childcare responsibilities or caring for elderly parents, as well as activities outside employment, flexible working is the benefit of the moment. Other organisations are realising that employees want to work differently, so why is the NHS struggling to follow suit?

It’s got some of the best flexible working policies – and as a public sector organisation is fully signed up to offering flexibility – but the legislation is starkly different to the reality. Legally, an organisation does not have to grant flexible working if it does not fit with its business needs, and there is a lot of fear around it being detrimental to business continuity – especially in an acute hospital, where lives depend on the efficient running of certain services 24 hours a day. 

For managers in charge of staffing these critical departments, it’s safer to close down the idea of flexible working completely, because if they allow one person to do it, they think it will open the floodgates and they will be forced to allow them all.

At the moment it’s very much a management issue, and I would like to see it become a team issue, where everyone works together to balance individuals’ needs with the requirement to keep the service running. Flexible working consultancy Timewise has been working with several NHS organisations to pilot this approach, with promising results. You’re more likely to get compromise by making it a collective responsibility, rather than a top-down decision.

I’d also like to see jobs designed more proactively to accommodate different working patterns, such as job shares. These are brilliant for people who don’t want to work full-time, but are rare – recruitment practices just aren’t set up for them. The two potential sharers have to apply independently and flag separately that they’d like to job share.

With up to five different generations making up today’s workforce, people are at different stages of their careers and have different expectations. Young people are not ready to accept the long hours and high-pressure cultures that have been part and parcel of jobs for many older workers during their careers. For example, a job share between someone approaching retirement and looking to reduce their hours and a younger person developing into a more senior role would be an ideal way of ensuring the NHS retains the staff it invests so much in training, but also securing a concrete future talent pipeline.

Ironically, there has been a move recently to try to reduce the amount the NHS spends on agency staff, but the reason those staff moved to agencies in the first place was because of a lack of flexibility working for a trust. 

The ultimate aim is for people to choose to work for the NHS because they know it’s open to flexible working – with buy-in from HR teams at a local level, plus backing from organisations like NHS Employers and the Royal Colleges, we can make the NHS an employer of choice. Other employers are already much further ahead, so it’s imperative this starts to happen now. The changing nature of our workforce, plus the impact Brexit is likely to bring, mean it’s more important than ever that we allow people to work the way they want to. I don’t think we can afford not to.

Read the London Leadership Academy and Timewise’s report Flexible working in the NHS: the case for action.