19 Feb 2020
Our Senior Programme Manager for Work, Patrick Thomson, writes about the barriers faced by older workers in health services and what we should be doing to support them to keep working.
The NHS will be facing an unprecedented challenge over the coming weeks and months. It is difficult to comprehend the scale of what is to come as a result of the spread of the COVID-19 virus, with the stresses it will place on the system and the people working in it.
The nature of a pandemic with exponential growth is that we need more on a scale never known before; more protective equipment, more testing kits, more ICU beds and ventilators, but above all, more skilled people to deliver what is needed.
The Health Secretary has called on 65,000 retired doctors and nurses in England and Wales, asking them to return to the NHS to help tackle the coronavirus outbreak. Initially clinicians who have retired within the last three years, with further calls for ex-NHS employees and members of the public expected soon.
In the first four days of the request, more than 5,600 nurses and 1,900 doctors signed up.
MPs with a health background are returning to support the effort, along with 20,000 private health staff who are transferring to join the NHS effort. Many of these returners will be older workers and they will be joining a workforce that is already an older workforce, with nearly half of NHS staff aged over 45. Returners will be assessed to see how they can best help the NHS fight the pandemic and will not all be in frontline roles but will help the system as a whole to cope better with what is to come.
Who are these returners?
Most obviously, returning NHS staff will have the knowledge and experience to reassimilate into roles that they have undertaken before. Returning NHS staff will bring skills and knowledge built up over a lifetime of working that will be invaluable to this task. Surveys of employers show that older workers provide high levels of experience, reliability and motivation.
The NHS is one of the world’s largest employers, and health and social care is one of the largest sectors in the UK economy, so this is a wide pool of people. There are over 300,000 people aged 50-64 who have left a job in health or social care in the last eight years who are not currently working. They left work for a range of reasons, most commonly early retirement, health reasons or caring responsibilities. While some will be able to return, many others may have health conditions or caring for others that prevent them from doing so.
Looking at the NHS itself, with 1.3 million staff it is hardly surprising that the numbers leaving each year are also large – more than 200,000 for the year 2017/18. A little more than half left voluntary, seeking higher salaries or opportunities to progress, or leaving for better work-life balance. About one in seven (14%) left for retirement of one form or another.
For any former NHS employees or private health professionals who return to service, it’s important we ensure they do not face the same barrier that caused them to leave in the first place.
What can they expect when they return?
This comes at a time when the NHS workforce is already undergoing a lot of change, and about to implement the anticipated People Plan. This will need to adapt to deal with this immediate and changing crisis. The People Plan has been built under the precept that “More staff is not enough – NHS must also be best place to work”. This will be hugely tested and takes on a new significance with the pressures that will be faced in the coming weeks. The importance of balancing staff health and wellbeing with the extraordinary demands will be a massive challenge.
A senior NHS practitioner has used the comparison of emergency oxygen on a plane – people need to put on their own oxygen mask first before helping others. Of course, all NHS staff, including returners, need the best physical equipment to be able to do their jobs, but they also need the human support of those around them to carry out their emotionally and physically demanding tasks.
Returning to some form of work having retired is not so unusual. Even without a call like the one faced by the NHS, one in four retirees in the UK end up returning to some form of paid work. Often for financial necessity, but also because they miss the social interaction, meaning and purpose that they find in work.
Seeing the energy and dedication that NHS staff are already showing and waves of public support and gratitude, we know that the social element is there. It is also difficult to think of anything with more meaning or purpose than the fight to save the lives of so many over the coming months.