Employers have not “kept up” with the expectations of younger nurses who want more flexible working options, including opportunities for “career breaks”, which has exacerbated staffing difficulties, according to the chief nursing officer for England.
Professor Jane Cummings said the failure by services to cater for the younger generation’s approach to balancing life and work had coincided with decisions in the past to reduce training places.
“I don’t think we as a system, as a service, have really kept up with the generational differences”
She noted that when she began her training as a nurse, “you literally went in and that was your job”, adding that she had worked in the NHS for almost 39 years without a break in her career.
She said: “That wouldn’t happen now – many younger people want much greater flexibility, they want a portfolio career, to maybe work part-time in this, then they maybe want to go and do something else, they maybe want to take a career break, or go and work in Australia for a year and come back.
“I don’t think we as a system, as a service, have really kept up with the generational differences,” said Professor Cummings, who was speaking as part of a Healthchat event organised by the Academy of Fabulous Stuff at the King’s Fund in London on Tuesday evening.
“There are some places that are much better than others doing that, but it is a real lesson around flexible working,” she added.
“We started training more [nurses], but obviously it takes three years to train them, plus the year it takes for people to apply”
The CNO said that the NHS had around 3% more nurses and 6% more midwives than there were in 2012, but acknowledged this was still not enough.
Staffing problems had arisen from historical decisions to train fewer nurses based on the expectation that services would not require as many due to planned bed closures, she said.
“Then we got to the point where we realised that… actually we needed more,” she said. “So we started training more, but obviously it takes three years to train them, plus the year it takes for people to apply.”
Professor Cummings noted that the time lag in training meant the increase by Health Education England in the number of pre-registration places in recent years were only just resulting in more nurses working in the health service.
“That has been linked to a much greater focus on staffing, which we started in 2012, and an increase in the numbers of nurses that wards and services say they need,” she said.
Last year, the chief executive of HEE warned healthcare bosses that retention of nursing staff was the “biggest single challenge over the next few years”.
Professor Ian Cumming said nurses who had returned to practice had told HEE the main reason they had left the first places was due to lack of flexible working patterns.