Fears for nursing workforce as retirement rate surges

More than 65,850 NHS staff began the retirement process in 2015-16, adding to pressures on the health service.

More than 65,850 NHS staff began the retirement process in 2015-16, adding to pressures on the health service

Picture: iStock

Workforce experts and nursing leaders have spoken out about their fears for the NHS after learning that the number of staff applying to retire has surged by 25% over the past four years.

The latest figures, uncovered by RCNi’s Nursing Standard, were published as widespread concerns about winter pressures on the health service have highlighted nurses’ heavy workloads.

The number retiring has jumped from just more than 53,000 in 2012-13, an increase of 3,000 on the previous year.


While the figures from NHS Pensions do not provide a breakdown of the professions applying, nursing is the largest element of the workforce.

More than one third (37%) of nurses and midwives are over 50 years old.

The large number of nurses approaching retirement has long caused concern that an exodus of experienced staff will add further pressure to an overstretched workforce.

Responding to an RCNi news story, Surge in number of NHS staff applying to retire, nurses spoke about leaving their posts as work pressures continue to mount.


Increase in number of staff retiring over the past five years

Concerned respondents said that workloads are growing and appealed for the recruitment of more staff.

A nurse with almost 40 years’ experience said that a recent redesign had seen 27 posts being cut from their area. ‘I plan to return to bank, but it will be on my terms,’ the nurse wrote.

Another responded: ‘I am also considering retirement at 55. I have worked in the NHS since I was 18, yet now I am working harder than I have ever done due to staff shortages.’

High demand

These despondent messages came as the NHS struggled though December and January with high demand. Hospitals reported busy emergency departments and too few beds, with patients waiting on trolleys for treatment and admission.

Anna Crossley

RCN professional lead for acute, emergency and critical care Anna Crossley says that, for under-pressure nursing managers, the loss of experienced staff will be a significant concern.

‘These nurses know the system well and have worked in it for a long time,’ she says. ‘When they leave, there will be a big gap because they do so much.’

Understaffing and high workloads can prompt staff to leave, she warns. ‘When the pressures are high and nurses don’t feel they can provide the care they want to, they can decide to leave.

‘Then you are faced with gaps in rotas. If you are lucky and have bank staff that know the ward well, the gaps are easier to manage; if you don’t, you are at the mercy of agency staff who may not be used to the specialty or hospital.’

Unison head of health Christina McAnea has called for action to prevent much needed nurses leaving. ‘Nurses are choosing to take early retirement rather than run themselves into the ground trying to look after more patients with fewer resources,’ she says.

‘But with staffing shortages at crisis levels, the NHS cannot risk losing any more experienced members of staff.

‘The government must act now. Ministers could end the pay cap and scrap plans to remove the student bursary.’


Research from the Institute for Employment Studies in July 2016 reveals that one in three nurses are due to retire in the next ten years, but also a lack of UK-trained nurses to fill the gap.

The report shows that the NHS relies heavily on nurses from other European Union countries such as Ireland, Portugal and Spain, but their future is uncertain in the wake of the referendum vote on Brexit.

James Buchan

Staff associate at the Institute for Global Health and Development at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, James Buchan says that employers should consider options such as flexible retirement to encourage nurses to stay in the profession longer, and to share their experience and knowledge.

‘There are areas of the profession with older age profiles, most noticeably those in the community and care homes, where the impact of retirement will hit first and biggest,’ he explains.

RCN senior employment relations adviser Gerry O’Dwyer suggests that one explanation for the surge in retirement applications is that several doctors with large pensions may be choosing to retire due to a change in tax law, which has cut the amount that can be saved with tax relief.


Percentage of nursing and midwifery workforce aged over 50 

One new approach to increase numbers of registered nurses is the new nursing apprenticeship, with the first courses set to start later this year. Apprentices will allow people to work as paid healthcare assistants (HCAs) while they study for at least four years.

While many details remain unclear, the first apprentices are expected to start work in September 2017.

Some academics have criticised the plan, with King’s College London professor of nursing policy Anne Marie Rafferty describing apprenticeships as a way to exploit nursing students by using them to staff services.

However, others, including staff at the RCN, point out that new routes into nursing are needed, especially as the bursary has been scrapped in England.


University of Derby head of prequalifying healthcare Denise Baker, who will be providing an apprenticeship course, expects that apprentices will spend one or two days a week working as HCAs, and the rest in education.  

She says there has been huge interest from local employers since health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced the apprenticeship in November.

‘In the East Midlands, we are struggling with recruitment and have about 250 nursing vacancies,’ she says. ‘We are not alone in this and have to think about doing things differently.

‘For local trusts, the option to grow your own and to support people who are talented and loyal in your workforce is highly attractive. It is a time of fantastic opportunity for support workers.’


Number of nursing associates training this year

Another new development that could affect nursing managers and their staff this year is the launch of nursing associates, who are also being given work-based training opportunities.

The first cohort of 1,000 nursing associates, intended to bridge the gap between HCAs and registered nurses, were due to begin their training by the end of last month.

Jane Cummings

Chief nursing officer for England Jane Cummings says that the new hands-on role is a good move for nurses.

‘The new role also has clear benefits for registered nurses, providing additional support and releasing time to give the assessment and care they are trained to provide, as well as undertake more advanced tasks,’ Professor Cummings says. 


About the author

Erin Dean is a freelance journalist

This article is for subscribers only