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Planning for an ageing NHS workforce

Tagged In:  NHS

Most of us are aware that the ageing UK population is going to have an increasing impact on the NHS. But what about its own ageing workforce?

With average life expectancy getting higher and the state pension eligibility age expected to rise to at least 70 for those now in their 20s, many employers face the prospect of an increasingly ageing workforce.  For the country's biggest employer, the NHS, that poses a particular challenge. Its Five Year Forward View advocates new models of care to deal with demographic change in the population. But what about the people tasked with delivering that change: the 1.3 million doctors, nurses, allied health workers, admin and ancillary staff who work in the NHS? Many of them will inevitably be working longer too, often facing exceptional physical and emotional demands.

There is so much concern about this that a Working Longer Group (WLG) has been established to review the implications of NHS employees working to a later, raised retirement age. Bringing together NHS trade unions, employers and health department representatives, the WLG set out its initial findings and recommendations in a report published in October 2014. It's now in the process of implementing the 11 key recommendations, which include giving NHS staff better information about their pension options, breaking down barriers which prevent them from moving easily between trusts and geographical areas, and ensuring there is good practice in occupational health, safety and wellbeing.

It's not just the obvious worries which NHS employees face as they work to an older age, for example deteriorating eyesight for doctors and physical fitness for nurses and physiotherapists. Other factors inherent in NHS working tend to make things particularly challenging. A 2012 study by Norwegian researchers found strong evidence for a link between shift work, which is associated with a number of negative health outcomes, and sick leave. And an American study of 2014 found that night shift work may contribute to an increased risk of chronic disease.

Leading the way

One NHS Trust, York Teaching Hospital, has responded to the WLG recommendations by setting up a taskforce to look at options for future workforce planning. They've also developed a data template for directorates to enable them to analyse their workforce age profile.

There are particular concerns about the rapidly ageing workforce of midwives, which has been described by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) as a 'retirement time bomb'. Their State of Maternity Services Report 2015 highlights the fact that around a third of midwives in England are aged 50 or older. In other parts of the UK the situation is even more pronounced. In Scotland 42% of midwives are aged 50+ and in Northern Ireland the number of midwives under 50 actually fell between 2001 and 2015, while there was a rise in the number of those aged 50 and above.

"We must ensure that they are replaced in good time before they retire," says the RCM report. "If we wait, there will not be enough time for newly-qualified midwives to gain the experience and confidence they need before many of their more senior, more experienced colleagues leave the service."

"There is no doubt that, of the many challenges facing the NHS, employers and staff, the impact of caring for an ageing society whilst concurrently supporting an ageing workforce is one of the greatest." So says the WLG in its preliminary findings and recommendations report. Rising to this challenge will be a key task in creating a healthcare system that's fit for the future and that properly supports its dedicated, hardworking employees.

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