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Providing flexibility in the NHS

We can't always provide the extent of control an agency can give, but we can look to increase flexibility

In an NHS workplace that is increasingly challenging and where staff can be stretched in different directions, making the most of how flexibly they work and train can be important for regaining control.

What does this mean for employers?

Either we work with our people to meet their needs, or we don’t and risk losing them. Retention is an issue in the NHS, alongside supply, and the two factors are linked in the brand we need to develop as major employers in our local communities. A recent survey of more than 423,000 NHS staff presented some positive results. Despite the increased pressures on public services, our people report that they are still feeling engaged and committed to delivering high-quality care. However, we can’t be complacent.

Informal intelligence tells us that despite the changes to policy affecting agencies, staff are still joining them – and we haven’t seen huge numbers returning to substantive NHS roles either. We need to ask ourselves what our people want.

Do we need a big piece of research to tell us this? I suspect not. If we listened properly they would be clear about where the challenges are, though we would also see differences in culture and approach across what is a diverse workforce.

Like the rest of the public sector we have been subject to pay restraint, but we can affect the other factors. In fact we need to take action on the other factors if we are to keep our people. They want to be able to have some control of when and where they work. They want to enjoy and plan their life outside work and for those staff who want to progress in their careers, they want the workplace to provide the opportunity for this. We can't always provide the extent of choice and control that an agency can give, but we can look to increase the opportunities for flexibility in our work practices. We are ideally placed to enable choice and opportunity across our organisations and our regions.

I’m not saying it is easy... there are some tensions to deal with. We need to balance the needs of the service with the needs of the individual, the need for flexibility with the need for predictability, and tailor supply to demand.

So how do we do this in the NHS?

I propose two actions. First, find out what our people want. Talk to them and learn what it is that will keep them in the workplace. Sometimes even the smallest change can make a difference and just asking shows that you care.

Second, ask who should do the talking. It is those best placed to know their staff – the line managers at ward and team level. We rightly commit time and energy to professional and clinical development to improve our services, and our best employers give equal priority to the professional development of their line managers. Alongside this development must come the tools to do the demanding job we ask of them: administrative support, investment in IT systems that reduce their burden, good rostering systems, HR and finance advice that is timely and rooted in partnership.

For the NHS, the largest employer in the UK and in most local communities, we are confronting the need to be more flexible in what we offer as employers. For us the route to this is through supporting and developing our vital team managers.

Danny Mortimer is CEO of NHS Employers