· 2 min read · Features

What HRDs can learn from NHS locum panic buying


Temporary staffing issues hit the headlines recently when Sky News reported that the NHS paid more than £3,200 for a locum doctor to work just one 24-hour shift in A&E. There was an air of sensationalism about this. But it did in fact provide a dramatic illustration of a serious challenge currently facing the NHS.

Granted, health sector HR directors face some unique temporary staffing challenges. But ensuring temporary worker demand is managed effectively is a challenge for many industries, with the International Confederation of Private Employment Agencies citing the UK as having the highest number of temporary workers in Europe at around 1.3 million. TUC figures add to this picture. They suggest that non-permanent staff numbers doubled between 2005 and 2012. 

So, what lessons can HR learn from the temporary worker problems faced in the health sector?

1. Plan rather than react to your needs

Hindsight is a wonderful thing; you need to be able to understand what temporary staff you have bought, why you did so, at what cost and from which suppliers. These basic answers are the keys to understanding what resources are actually needed rather than what the organisation thinks it needs.

2. Work with, not against, your peers

One of the symptoms of being a panic buyer is that you start to compete in order to source what you need. But when demand outstrips supply this leads to recruiters and candidates holding all the cards. By collaborating with other organisations with the same needs, you can collectively ‘win your hand back’ and start to negotiate terms with the market.

3. Staffing agencies do need your business

It may often be a candidate’s and recruiter’s market but at the end of the day staffing agencies still need to do business you and are competing amongst themselves for the right candidates. Don’t be pressured; look at the bigger picture of how you work with recruiters. Could innovation change the goalposts?

4. Make the hirer accountable

In the NHS, clinical directorates need to be given greater accountability and responsibility for their locum requirements. Equally the people who organise hospital staff rotas need greater support to improve rota co-ordination and to buy on a more planned basis. If you have a central oversight of buying activity, consider whether the same ‘devolution’ of day to day temp purchasing could work in your business. It may give the HR team more time to focus on attracting and retaining permanent staff.

5. Work out what you’re willing to pay and on what terms

By stepping back from the temporary worker ‘edge’, fully understanding their needs, talking to others and reviewing how they work with recruitment agencies, organisations can take the lead and dictate what terms and pay scales are acceptable to them, creating a stronger basis for negotiation. These are the fundamentals of controlling the market, rather than letting the market take control of you. 

Without planning, HR professionals run the risk of firefighting staffing issues and acting like panic buyers – scrambling to get whatever is on the shelf, never mind the price or whether they actually need it or not. But life doesn’t have to be this way; realising that the problem is not the need for temporary staff, but the approach being taken towards purchasing them, will go a long way.

Jon Milton is director at UK temporary staffing procurement agency Comensura, which has issued guidance to NHS Trusts on how to procure locums more cost effectively