Career advice

What is secondment and how can it transform your nursing career?

Secondment can offer new direction in your career and a chance to learn and test your skills in a different area of care. Find out what’s involved and how it works

Secondment can offer new direction in your career and a chance to learn and test your skills in a different area of care. Find out what’s involved and how it works

Illustration showing the sign ‘change ahead’ on a road, highlighting that a secondment could offer the change in direction your career needs
Picture: iStock

If you feel like you’ve lost your drive or direction when it comes to your career, a secondment may be the solution.

A few months or a year in a different role could offer new challenges, fresh ideas and different responsibilities.

Stepping out of my usual clinical role

Secondments are common mid-career, but others with less experience can benefit too.

Jess Sainsbury was only six months into life as a registered nurse when a secondment opportunity arose.

Alongside her role as as a clinical nurse, Ms Sainsbury was working with her trust’s education team, overseeing a local student council, when Health Education England became involved and proposed that the council have a wider, multi-professional brief.

The Florence Nightingale Foundation (FNF) took over funding for the project and Ms Sainsbury was asked whether she would be interested in overseeing it on a year-long secondment.

At first, she hesitated. ‘It would mean stepping out of my clinical role completely because the secondment was full-time. But the reason I went with it was that I knew I wanted to be in a leadership role.’

Short or long stints, and internal or external positions

Secondments are beneficial for organisations as well as individuals. They support nurses’ identified development needs, but, according to NHS Wales’s secondment policy, they also help with staff retention.

They can ensure continuity of service during times of organisational change, maternity leave or long-term sickness, and, if the secondment is with a different employer, can help build closer links with other organisations.

‘Secondments are a good way to allow people to experience different parts of the system rather than quitting a job, moving to a new one, then finding they don’t like it’

Stephen Jones, RCN professional lead for mental health

Secondments can be for a matter of weeks – to complete a discrete project, for example – or may be long-term. NHS Employers guidance says ‘there is nothing to prevent a secondment from being ongoing’, with provisions made if any party wishes to end the arrangement.

NHS Wales stipulates a maximum secondment length of four years, while other employers may have policies with a set maximum duration.

‘Secondment changed me: I felt more confident and empowered’

Leonie Brown was a charge nurse and education lead at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust when she first undertook a secondment in 2021.

Leonie Brown, who says secondment has helped developed her leadership skills
Secondment enabled Leonie Brown to develop her leadership skills

She was looking for opportunities having recently completed the Windrush Nurses and Midwives Leadership Programme, which is run by the Florence Nightingale Foundation and supports the development of black, Asian and minority ethnic leaders.

‘I saw three jobs,’ Ms Brown says. ‘One was a secondment, one a fixed-term one-year contract, and one was permanent.’

She decided on the secondment because she didn’t feel the other roles were quite right for her. ‘I didn’t want to take a permanent job and feel stuck, and let myself and the trust down,’ she says. ‘So I chose the secondment, which was head of nursing for clinical services.’

It was only for a month, but at a higher level of seniority and with a clear brief, part of which was to begin tackling a high vacancy rate.

Leading without asking for permission

The secondment changed her significantly, Ms Brown says. ‘I felt more confident, more empowered and enlightened. I was able to lead change without asking for permission.’

As a result, when she returned to her substantive post, she felt she had outgrown it. ‘It was like I needed to be repotted in a bigger pot,’ she says.

She felt ready for a role at a higher level, but serious illness intervened, including a period in intensive care. ‘I saw things from a patient perspective, as well as from a nurse and senior leader perspective,’ says Ms Brown.

But that additional insight served her well and when a second opportunity arose – this time a secondment as head of nursing for fundamentals of care in her trust – she applied and was successful.

‘I believe in quality. I’m not someone who likes to jump bands just so they have a big job. It has to be right for me. But when I saw this one it really grabbed me. I thought, I love the look of this job.’

Agreeing the details of the secondment: what’s involved

Secondments depend on the mutual consent of all those involved. Arrangements are likely to be less complex if the secondment is within the same organisation but a ‘tripartite’ agreement – between two different organisations and the person seconded – ‘will be a more complex document’, the NHS Employers guidance says.

Whether the secondment is internal or external, the secondee’s duties should be clearly laid out, along with the responsibilities of the employing organisation and the host organisation.

It should also be clear who is responsible for:

  • Day-to-day management of the secondee.
  • Payment of salary, benefits and expenses – usually the substantive employer, which then invoices the host organisation.
  • Disciplinary and grievance issues.
  • Annual leave – for example, who approves requests and what happens if leave is accrued but not taken?

NHS Employers also says the agreement should make clear what happens at the end of the secondment and whether the secondee will return to their employing organisation.

Sharing what you have learned on secondment

Mental health nurse Stephen Jones says there should be strategic and operational planning to ensure that the knowledge and learning of nurses on secondment are exploited for the benefit of services. ‘Where that is facilitated, it can be very powerful,’ he says.

Mr Jones has undertaken two secondments. The first was with a partnership between three London mental health trusts, including his own, that brings together clinical expertise, experience and innovation for the benefit of service users.

A woman talking to a new manager. Secondment offers a chance to learn and experience a different role or area of care
Secondment offers a chance to learn and experience a different role or area of care Picture: iStock

As that secondment ended, he began another – as RCN professional lead for mental health, a post that became his permanent position earlier this year.

He stresses the value of secondments to nurses keen to develop ‘horizontally’. ‘If they feel stagnant in a role, they want to be able to move into a position that may pay the same but gives them more experience,’ he says.

And, unlike a new job where there is pressure to prove yourself from the outset, a secondment is geared towards learning. ‘You may feel like a novice but you have this protection around you because if it doesn’t work out you can go back,’ he says.

‘A secondment gives a space for the employer as well. If the secondee isn’t up for the role or there are issues, it can be reviewed. So secondments are very safe.

‘They’re a good way to allow people to experience different parts of the system rather than quitting a job, moving to a new one, then finding they don’t like it, which happens a lot.’

Tips for getting the most out of a secondment

  • Be clear about what you are looking for from a secondment and find one in an area that interests you, advises Leonie Brown, currently on secondment as head of nursing for fundamentals of care at Epsom and St Helier University Hospitals NHS Trust. ‘Check it is right for you,’ she says. For example, consider how it will benefit you and how it will improve practice in your substantive post
  • Set clear objectives for what you want to get out of the secondment, says Jess Sainsbury, whose secondment with the Florence Nightingale Foundation (FNF) led to a permanent role as its head of nursing and midwifery engagement. ‘How are you going to develop professionally so that you can say, “I achieved X, Y and Z and this is how the secondment developed my CV, my skills, my network”?’ she says
  • Before applying for a secondment, consider having a career conversation with your manager, Ms Brown suggests, to help you make sure you are doing the right thing
  • Be ready to step outside your comfort zone when you begin a secondment ‘because that’s where the magic happens’, Ms Brown adds. ‘You don’t grow in your comfort zone’
  • Stay connected with your team or organisation while you are away on secondment. Ms Sainsbury says she tried to ensure that what she learned on secondment she took back to her employing trust. ‘Or if I met someone through my work at the FNF who might be useful to the team I worked with at the trust, I would facilitate introductions’
  • While on secondment be enthusiastic to learn and share new knowledge, Ms Brown says. ‘Be open to constructive feedback and ask for regular performance feedback.’ A development plan written at the start of the secondment with goals that are SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound – can help track progress and indicate whether any objectives need tweaking, she suggests
Watch: How to make the most of SMART objectives in your learning

Support to make the most of the opportunity

Ms Sainsbury’s 12-month secondment evolved and was extended by a year, though she continued to maintain close contact with the education team at her trust and undertook reverse mentoring with the chief nurse there.

She downplays her own qualities in ensuring her secondment was a success, highlighting instead the encouragement she was offered by the FNF, in particular to help overcome what she describes as imposter syndrome.

‘My line manager at the time was incredibly supportive of the unique nature of the secondment and how early on it was in my career,’ she says. ‘I also had a series of coaching sessions with one of the FNF associates. I struggled for 6-9 months with the fact I wasn’t working clinically. I was trying to find my identity as an early career nurse who wasn’t clinical, and the coaching really helped.’

A strong peer support network of nurses who joined the register when she did was also ‘really valuable’ in helping her succeed in the secondment, Ms Sainsbury says.

When a permanent post at the FNF arose – head of nursing and midwifery engagement –she seized the opportunity.

‘The things our colleagues are doing and the changes they are making are absolutely incredible, so if my role can facilitate that in any way, that would be amazing.’

Further information

NHS Employers guidance (2019) System working – staff mobility/portability