Career advice

Is a return-to-practice course right for you?

How a 16-week programme tackles the challenges of returning after a career break

How a 16-week programme prepares nurses for the challenges of returning after a career break or change, or early retirement

University programmes can help to restore skills and confidence of qualified nurses who want to return to nursing
Participants on the return to professsional practice course at the University of Northampton

For those who have been out of nursing for a while, returning to practice can feel daunting.

University programmes for qualified nurses who want to return to the profession can help restore skills and confidence.

‘For most students, the biggest challenge is anxiety before they start the course,’ says senior lecturer Ros Wray, who leads the return to professional practice course at the University of Northampton.

Life experiences can enhance your nursing skills

‘If you haven’t nursed for years, the prospect of going back into practice and caring for patients is nerve-wracking.’

But life experiences often enhance participants’ nursing skills. ‘Many nurses say they practice differently after a break,’ says Ms Wray.

‘They see themselves as more patient, with better listening skills. They bring maturity and employers value them.’ 

Addressing the nursing shortage 

The Interim NHS People Plan, published in June 2019, suggests tackling the nursing workforce crisis by supporting and encouraging more nurses to return to practice.

A report from the Health Foundation, published a few months later, revealed there are almost 44,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England, equivalent to 12% of the nursing workforce.

In an attempt to address the nursing shortage, the government has pledged to recruit 50,000 more nurses. Of this figure, 18,500 would be either encouraged to remain within the NHS or attracted back after leaving. 


What the return-to-practice course entails

The University of Northampton runs its 16-week return-to-practice course three times a year. Each cohort of 12-15 people is supported to refresh their theoretical knowledge and clinical practice, and participants undertake a placement throughout the programme.

Topics covered include infection prevention and control, quality initiatives, medicines management, information technology, study skills and how healthcare has changed since they last practised.

Funded by Health Education England, the programme includes a £500 bursary towards costs such as travel and childcare.

‘Seeing students go from being apprehensive to finding their professional identity again is great’

Ros Wray, senior lecturer and return to professional practice course lead, University of Northampton

After a two-week long induction, placements begin. Students are expected to complete a minimum of 100 hours of supervised practice, with those who have been out of nursing for a long time possibly needing up to 200 hours.

‘We keep students together as a group as much as possible because of the benefits of peer support,’ says Ms Wray. ‘But they have different needs, particularly in practice, and individuality comes into it.’

The university tries to match students to placements that have a degree of familiarity. ‘It’s challenging enough to return, but moving to a new area of nursing that you’ve never worked in before would make it even more stressful,’ says Ms Wray.

‘I thought nursing was a door that had closed’

After giving up nursing in 2010 to look after her daughter, who had disabilities, Lynn Hoppenbrouwers thought her decision would be final.

‘I thought nursing was a door that had closed,’ she says. But after her daughter died, she decided to investigate her options.

Lynn Hoppenbrouwers, who completed a return-to-practice course and took up a role as a staff nurse at a hospice
Lynn Hoppenbrouwers found returning to
practice less complicated than she expected

‘There was something that made me explore – an itch I needed to scratch,’ says Ms Hoppenbrouwers. ‘I assumed that returning to practice would be complicated and I’d have to go back to university. It wasn’t until I looked into it further, I thought I could give it go.’

After qualifying at age 21, Ms Hoppenbrouwers developed an interest in palliative care, something she has been able to rekindle through a placement at a hospice.

‘It reminded me why I always wanted to specialise in this area,’ she says. ‘There’s an opportunity to have a more personal relationship with the patients.’

Life experiences can enhance nursing skills

She was also able to continue working at Contact, a charity for families of children with disabilities, for the duration of her course.

‘It was difficult working part-time and fitting in the logistics of travelling to the course and my placement, but it was only for a short period so it was manageable,’ says Ms Hoppenbrouwers.

Her own life experiences have influenced her approach to nursing. ‘Being on the receiving end of services for many years has given me an insight into some of the challenges and differences of opinion there can be,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an awareness of person-centred care and what that means. The complexities of life with a child with disabilities are poorly understood.’

In January 2020, she started a new role as a staff nurse on the inpatient unit at her local hospice. ‘I’m excited and terrified at the same time,’ says Ms Hoppenbrouwers. ‘I have missed interacting with patients.’


    The challenges to consider before enrolling on a return-to-practice course

    While the return to professional practice course attracts a lot of interest and is part-time, it is also demanding.

    ‘There’s a lot that people need to think about before they start,’ says Ms Wray. ‘It’s a big commitment and they need the support of family and friends. They will be working long shifts and doing written work, so it can be challenging. They need to think “is this the right time for me?”’

    But the rewards are numerous, with many finding a job while they’re still on the course. ‘Seeing students go from being apprehensive to finding their professional identity again is great’ says Ms Wray.

    Returning to practice after early retirement

    Ann Walsh, who undertook a return to professional practice course and returned to nursing years after letting her registration lapse
    Ann Walsh, who returned to nursing
    years after letting her registration lapse

    Even as a little girl, Ann Walsh knew she wanted to be a nurse, and she achieved her ambition when she qualified in 1984.

    But after having two daughters, she found it hard to progress while juggling the demands of her career and a family.

    ‘I was an ambitious nurse, but I got thwarted because there weren’t the opportunities,’ she says.

    With a career based almost entirely within the community, she ended up managing general practices part-time. ‘They would have let me continue nursing, but I didn’t feel I had the capacity with my home life,’ says Ms Walsh.

    In 2010, she let her registration go. ‘I felt disappointed, but I couldn't manage the extra time I needed to maintain it,’ she says.

    Ms Walsh took early retirement in 2015 and she wondered what else she could do.

    ‘After years of management, I’d forgotten how nice it is when people are happy with what you do’

    After meeting someone who had done a return to nursing course, she felt inspired to follow suit. ‘It was a marvellous course and I enjoyed it. Although I was one of the oldest, I had a great time with the others,’ she recalls. 

    For her placement, she chose a general practice and has now started a part-time role training to be a practice nurse, with one day a week doing management work.

    What’s changed since my last nursing role

    Since she last nursed, changes include differences in clinical practice and more use of online resources and technology. ‘I was frightened at first, because I’d been out of nursing for almost 19 years,’ says Ms Walsh. ‘But I still love the patients and I’m thrilled to be with them again.

    ‘The core of what people want from you – to be kind, competent, polite, responsive and individualised – is still the same. I feel secure in those skills.

    ‘After years of management, I’d forgotten how nice it is when people are happy with what you do.’

    Lynne Pearce is a health journalist 

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