NHS staff turnover has reached ‘critical’ levels, think tank warns

Health Foundation research shows nursing hit particularly hard, with work-life balance blamed for poor retention

NHS staff turnover has reached ‘critical’ levels, think tank warns

NHS staff retention has not improved over the past year, continuing a “worrying” trajectory of worsening turnover since 2011, a think tank has warned. 

The Health Foundation said there was an “urgent need” to reduce the high levels of vacancies and staff turnover in the NHS, and said the gap between supply and demand for employees was worsening for key staff groups and service areas, in particular nursing.

“If the existing workforce shortages and deficits continue, they will severely hinder progress,” it said.

In its report, A Critical Moment: NHS Staffing Trends, Retention and Attrition, the Health Foundation said that despite a modest growth in the number of full-time staff over the last year – with 18,567 more staff in July 2018 compared with the year before – there was still an underlying shortage evident in the high number of vacancies across the NHS.

Trusts reported more than 100,000 vacancies, including more than 41,000 nursing posts, as vacant in the NHS in England in 2018. 

Approximately half of the growth in NHS staff was among professionally qualified clinical staff – such as ambulance staff, hospital and community health service doctors, and scientific, therapeutic and technical staff, all of which grew by around 3 per cent or more. 

But the number of midwives increased by less than 1 per cent, while the number of nurses and health visitors went up by less than 0.5 per cent.

Among the reasons for the shortages, work-life balance has been increasingly cited as a driving factor for people leaving the NHS. The number of people who said a lack of balance caused them to leave increased by more than two-and-a-half times between 2011/12 and 2018/19, amounting to an additional 11,000 people. 

CIPD wellbeing advisor Rachel Suff said that given the current tight labour market and high level of vacancies in the NHS, the sector needed to consider the potential benefits of more flexible working.

“Flexible working is an increasingly vital aspect of any organisation’s resourcing strategy, with evidence showing that most people want to work flexibly and consider it a key motivator for their productivity,” she said. “Meaningful, high-quality flexible working can increase an organisation’s ability to attract and retain diverse talent, improve employee job satisfaction and loyalty, and support wellbeing.”

Inter-generational expert at Talentio, Henry Rose Lee, added: “Shift patterns and flexible hours have long been in place in the NHS but there is nothing to stop each hospital, or even each ward, taking the teams in place and providing them with a holistic way of working.

“Everyone in the ward has to come together to discuss the working patterns, everyone agrees what they can or will do.”

The Health Foundation report also raised concerns both the impacts of Brexit and changes to the UK’s immigration policy could have an impact on the NHS’s ability to meet its long-term plan.

Tom Hadley, REC director of policy, said that in the wake of Brexit and its potential impact on the NHS, it was more important than ever to prioritise staff wellbeing. “If you’re a worker in many environments, such as the NHS, you’re going to be thinking: ‘What is going to happen if I don’t have the support of other workers around me?’” he said.

“Now is the time for NHS trusts to make the job doable, and to support and reassure their staff.”