Flexible working: why the NHS must make it work in practice

Nurses are crying out for work-life balance, and while new rules help, employers must find ways to give staff the flexibility they crave

Picture: Jim Varney

Flexible working is arguably the most significant, positive change to happen for nurses in recent years, at least for those working in the NHS in England and Wales.

Unions deserve credit for their efforts in pushing through the new rules, which have the potential to transform working lives and retain nursing staff.

The importance of flexible working to nurses

In a survey we conducted on the issue, one of the most striking findings was that 43% of respondents said flexible working was a determining factor in deciding to remain in or leave their jobs.

Flexible working has been viewed as a powerful way to stem the flow of staff away from the NHS, and our poll responses reinforce how important it is that these new rules work in practice. If they fail in implementation, they will propel even more nursing staff towards the exit.

The good news from our survey is that, of the one in three respondents who had submitted a request for some kind of flexible working, 62% told us they were successful.

But a third were refused their request and some respondents reported neither being given a reason why, nor having their case escalated to explore further options – despite these actions being required under the new arrangements.

Staffing pressures influence employers’ decisions when nurses request flexible working

All new ways of working have teething problems but a greater understanding of what is expected from both sides would be helpful.

Staffing levels and the backlog of care resulting from the pandemic are, of course, influencing employers decision-making in relation to flexible-working requests. But nurses’ experience of the pandemic – professional and personal – is prompting many to ask for flexible working, whether that is going part-time, having compressed hours, seeking job shares or other arrangements that might help them achieve work-life balance.

NHS Employers says these conversations are complex – as any nurse who negotiates a staff rota knows all too well.

Flexible working is all about balance and it’s clear that finding equilibrium between individual staff and workforce needs is vital to the future of the NHS – and nurses’ well-being.

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