Career advice

Why become an agency nurse when the stakes are so high?

As COVID-19 cases rise, the value of temporary staff has never been more obvious

As COVID-19 cases rise and winter pressures approach, the value of temporary staff has never been more obvious

Picture: iStock

The temporary workforce has long been a subject of discussion among health and social care professionals, in relation to care quality, continuity of care and, of course, cost.

The agency workforce jumps in at the last minute to make up the numbers, yet the rhetoric around agency nurses has always been relatively poor, with agency staff often the focus of negativity.

Agency staff more accustomed to blame than praise

In March, the health and social care workforce faced the challenge of a lifetime when COVID-19 hit the UK. As we began to count the cost of high mortality among our older care home population,

As COVID-19 cases rise and winter pressures approach, the value of temporary staff has never been more obvious

A female nurse on a ward
Picture: iStock

The temporary workforce has long been a subject of discussion among health and social care professionals, in relation to care quality, continuity of care and, of course, cost.

The agency workforce jumps in at the last minute to ‘make up the numbers’, yet the rhetoric around agency nurses has always been relatively poor, with agency staff often the focus of negativity.

Agency staff more accustomed to blame than praise

In March, the health and social care workforce faced the challenge of a lifetime when COVID-19 hit the UK. As we began to count the cost of high mortality among our older care home population, the temporary workforce continued to fill gaps in the rota and turn up to work in the unfamiliar surroundings of their next shift.

But they became the focus of blame almost overnight, with an unpublished study from Public Health England identifying agency staff as a source of COVID-19 being spread between care homes.

Despite this, they continued to go to work and provide essential care, administer essential medications and support people at the end of their lives, just as their colleagues in the permanent workforce did.

Agency nurses have also contracted COVID-19 during the course of care provision, with some losing their lives to the virus.

Freedom over work-life balance versus lack of security

Why then, when the stakes are so high, would you choose to be a temporary worker? One of the major reasons agency nurses say they choose this type of work is the control it gives them over their work-life balance.

It enables them to choose shifts that fit around other commitments, with many coordinating shift work with their partner’s work commitments so they can care for family members. With uncertainty in the employment market at such a high level, some find being a temporary worker also provides an opportunity to control and enhance their income.

But such flexibility comes at a cost. While permanent workers are offered additional benefits, such as enhanced sick pay and maternity and paternity leave, this may not be available to the temporary worker in the same way.

The ability to progress their career may be impeded by a lack of available resources and high-cost learning opportunities. Lack of support when things do not go as well as planned is a constant fear for many agency nurses, who may worry they will face a Nursing and Midwifery Council fitness to practise panel and possibly lose their registration.

On the face of it, the negative aspects of temporary working might appear to outweigh the positives, but when you find a good agency to work through, where opportunities for development exist, there is something rather nice about being your own boss.

Finding an agency that fits: what to consider

An illustration showing puzzles pieces with cutout images of people, all fitting together
Picture: iStock
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  • Call the agency and see how they communicate with you. What can they offer you in terms of support, training and professional development?
  • Do they offer shifts in your local area? Are the shifts within a reasonable commute or is this going to add to the length of your working day?
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  • Does the agency have a dedicated team that will assist you in managing any incidents you may be involved in where things have gone wrong in practice?
  • As an independent practitioner, what benefits will you get if you are unwell and cannot work? Will IR35 tax legislation (for off-payroll working) have an impact on the way you can work?
  • What about opportunities to progress? Is there someone within the organisation who understands the importance of feedback, appraisals and reviews?

Temporary workers needed for winter COVID-19 plan

The government’s adult social care COVID-19 winter plan for 2020-21 emphasises the need to reduce staff movement between care homes to minimise the risk of infection from COVID-19 and other viral illnesses, including flu.

The plan says that limitations on staff movement between care homes will be enforced through regulations focused on care home providers. But care home residents will still require compassionate care to see them through the winter season and beyond, and with around 122,000 vacancies in the adult social care sector, who will plug the gaps if it isn’t agency workers?

As we move towards the winter months, with the potential for a widespread resurgence of COVID-19, the temporary workforce will be essential to the success of the government’s winter plan.

Caring for agency care staff

Despite the high-risk environment and the challenges already faced this year, agency staff will continue to fill vacancies over the coming months.

So as a caring profession, let’s start thinking about how we can support this workforce and reduce the risk to them and the people to whom they provide care.

These staff members continue to integrate in unfamiliar teams and environments, providing continuity of care and consistency. They do it with passion because they believe in their worth and value what they do. We need to show them that we value them too.


Fiona Millington, chief nurse at online platform Florence

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