Nurse exodus includes many ‘leaving years before retirement age’

RCN report shows profession is ‘losing individuals at relatively early stages in their careers’, and calls for urgent pay rises and funding for career development
Many nurses are leaving the profession years before retirement age

RCN report shows profession is ‘losing individuals at relatively early stages in their careers’, and calls for urgent pay rises and funding for career development

Nurses walking away
Picture: iStock

Tens of thousands of nurses at ‘early stages in their careers’ have left the profession in the past five years, a new analysis suggests.

The RCN report, which looked at data from the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), found that almost 43,000 nurses and midwives aged 21 to 50 had left the profession between 2018 and 2022. The figure represents a third of all leavers.

Many reasons cited for nurse exodus

The college warned that the figures are ‘deeply worrying’ and said the exodus of young and experienced nurses was due to burnout, poor pay, being unable to deliver the care they want and negative workplace culture.

‘For every nurse who leaves the profession… it takes at least three years to educate a new nurse,’ the report states.

It adds: ‘It is extremely concerning that the nursing profession is losing individuals at relatively early stages in their careers.’

Report recommends ways to retain nurses

Across all ages, some 127,000 nurses left the register between October 2017 and September 2022, with almost 170,000 nurses joining in the same time. The number of younger nurses leaving is almost equivalent to the 47,000 nursing vacancies in the NHS in England, the RCN said.

The RCN said it was concerned nurses are ‘not only leaving in significant numbers, but are also leaving years before retirement age’.

A graph from the RCN report

The report recommends increasing nurses’ pay and providing more funding for nursing staff to access continuing professional development opportunities to keep them in the profession.

RCN criticises ‘years of underfunding and neglect’ from government

Nurses are currently embroiled in a bitter dispute with the government over poor pay and working conditions, with thousands taking part in strikes for the first time in NHS history.

RCN general secretary Pat Cullen said: ‘That nurses aren’t just choosing to retire early but are quitting – and not just the NHS but the profession entirely – when they’re only a few years into their career, is deeply worrying.

‘It speaks volumes about the dire state that ministers have allowed nursing to fall into through years of underfunding and neglect.’

An anonymous nursing student quoted in the report described feeling ‘deflated and at an all-time low… with little to no hope for a better future’.

They added: ‘As a soon-to-be-qualified nurse, I no longer want the career as it is.’

Picture: Daniel Mitchell

Nursing course applications continue to fall

The RCN report comes after applications to nursing courses in the UK fell for the second consecutive year, prompting fears it could exacerbate the current workforce crisis in the NHS.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service received 33,570 applications for undergraduate nursing courses by 25 January 2022, compared with 41,220 by the same time last year.

Meanwhile, a recent King’s Fund analysis found two-thirds of nurses who left the NHS in the past year were aged under 45.

Government cites increase in nurse numbers

The Department of Health and Social Care said nurses often left the NHS to move to other areas of healthcare such as primary and social care.

A spokesperson added that there were now more than 10,900 more nurses working in the NHS compared with the same period last year, and an additional 38,000 nurses have been recruited since September 2019.

Read the RCN report

Valuing Nursing in the UK

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