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Call for flexible hours for all nurses returning after having children – report

Researchers find wide variation in hours worked between NHS trusts, and say flexibility is key to retaining nurses with young children and would help to address staffing shortages

Researchers find wide variation in hours worked between NHS trusts, and say flexibility is key to retaining nurses with young children and would help to address staffing shortages

Ensuring all nurses can work flexibly after having children is key to addressing staffing shortages, according to a report that suggests not all nurses have the option of flexible working.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) report found that most female nurses switch to part-time work after returning from maternity leave, which demonstrates that the NHS offers flexible working arrangements to retain staff.

However, wide variation in the hours worked by nurses who recently had a baby suggests not

Researchers find wide variation in hours worked between NHS trusts, and say flexibility is key to retaining nurses with young children and would help to address staffing shortages

Picture: iStock

Ensuring all nurses can work flexibly after having children is key to addressing staffing shortages, according to a report that suggests not all nurses have the option of flexible working.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) report found that most female nurses switch to part-time work after returning from maternity leave, which demonstrates that the NHS offers flexible working arrangements to retain staff.

However, wide variation in the hours worked by nurses who recently had a baby suggests not all are able to access reduced hours contracts.

Addressing post-maternity employment could help tackle staffing crisis

The report is based on analysis of NHS payroll records in England between January 2014 and March 2020.

Over the six-year period, 66,000 female nurses and midwives went on maternity leave at least once – which accounts for more than one in six staff aged under 50.

The report states that attracting and retaining women with young children – or those planning a family – is key to addressing nurse staffing shortages and achieving the government’s goal of 50,000 extra nurses by 2025.

‘The same levels of flexibility are not available to all’

However, the researchers found big differences between NHS trusts, with more than 70% of nurses returning to full-time hours after maternity leave at some, while less than 15% returned to full-time work at others.

The researchers say this suggests some nurses may feel pressured to return full-time due to a lack of options to work part-time or fewer hours.

IFS senior research economist Elaine Kelly said: ‘Although this may partly reflect differences in staff preferences, it suggests the same levels of flexibility are not available to all.’

Nurses should be supported back to full-time work, say researchers

On average, nurses’ contracted hours dropped to around 78% of full-time equivalent a year after going on maternity leave, and only about a quarter returned to full-time work after two years.

The report found many nurses do not increase their hours for at least six years after maternity leave and suggests some could be supported to return to full-time work sooner.

Sensitivity needed when encouraging an increase in hours worked

The difference between the actual number of hours worked by nurses with a child starting school in September 2019 and the hours they could potentially work was the equivalent of 2,400 full-time nurses.

However, the researchers warned any efforts to encourage nurses with children to work more hours must be handled carefully to avoid losing staff.

Government highlights enhanced rights to flexible working

An NHS spokesperson said: ‘We know there are huge advantages to flexible working, both for NHS staff and employers, and while it is great news that so many nurses return to work after maternity leave, we want to make sure they feel they can do so in a way that supports their health and well-being and allows them to maintain a good work-life balance.

‘In September last year, we introduced contractual changes that enable employees to have the right to request flexible working from day one, and in February we published a new flexible working definition and set of principles to support employers to allow staff to work more flexibly.’

Take part in our flexible working survey

Since September last year, NHS staff have had increased rights to request flexible working.

Nursing Standard is inviting nursing staff in the UK to complete a short survey about requesting flexible working. We’re also asking about work-related skin problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The survey closes at 5pm on 18 March. Click here to take part.

Read the Institute of Fiscal Studies report

Working patterns of doctors and nurses returning from maternity leave


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