The benefits of strategic workforce planning within the care sector

by Michael Ellis, Healthier Recruitment

It’s no secret that access to talent is the biggest issue facing the heath sector today, a recent survey of 149 trust managers by NHS providers found that staff shortages are the ‘single biggest risk’ facing the National Health Service.

This is unsurprising when you consider that, according to official figures, there are currently in excess of 100,000 vacancies across England’s 234 acute, ambulance and mental health trusts, including 35,000 nursing posts.  

This dearth of talent can be attributed to a number of factors. It was reported in February 2018 that the number of students wanting to study NHS nursing has fallen sharply since bursaries were scrapped and UCAS reported that in 2017, applications fell by 13 per cent. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, professionals are quitting the heath sector in droves: earlier this year, NHS Digital reported that more than 10 per cent of the nursing workforce left NHS employment in each of the past three years.    

Historically, this shortfall would have been plugged by talent from overseas. However, since the EU referendum, the number of nurses from the EEA arriving to work in the UK has dropped significantly, while those quitting Britain has simultaneously increased. Late last year, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) reported that the number of EU nurses fell by 90 per cent after the vote and this situation shows no sign of easing. The most recent NMC data shows that in 2018 there are 3,000 fewer nurses from the European Economic Area working in the NHS than a year ago.

However, while the challenges of sourcing nurses has been well documented in the national media, the problems associated with recruiting and, crucially, retaining Health Care Assistants NHS workforce planning benefits(HCAs) is also adding to the woes of internal hiring managers.

While identifying HCA candidates is rarely an issue, the role has historically been one afflicted by high turnover rates, which leaves HR teams perpetually bogged-down with managing volume recruitment, to the detriment of long-term financial planning strategies.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that organisations need to adopt a far more sustainable, collaborative and strategic approach to sourcing both temporary and permanent talent, at every level, in order to effectively manage long-term talent strategy. NHS Trusts and private and third sector healthcare brands must take lessons from big business if they are to attract and pipeline talent to aid efficiencies while improving continuity of care.

Broadly speaking, strategic workforce planning strategy starts with an assessment of internal capability and serves as a mechanism to identify critical roles and future demand. Plans can then be put in place to ensure that existing talent is deployed in the most effective way within an organisation and that skills are pipelined for the coming months and years.

Factors such as number of beds, staff to patient ratio and the time of year should, of course, all be taken into account when pre-empting future demand. However, HR strategists should also perform a comprehensive audit to determine how their workforce is likely to shift in the near future, through retirement, for example, if they are to determine which skills they need to source long-term. Taking a bird’s eye view of the workforce in this way also has the added advantage of clearly revealing how efficiencies can be made, such as identifying where a full-time role can be created from smaller posts which are currently being filled by temps.

It’s also worth noting that, for all roles, not least HCAs, strategic workforce planning should always take into account proactive measures to improve staff retention. NHS Employers has recently published a guide for improving attrition levels where tips include: developing organisational values and creating a positive workplace, supporting flexible working and concentrating on ‘values based recruitment’. Of course, supporting staff with professional development and promoting wellbeing in the workplace will go some way in helping to alleviate turnover. However, if hiring managers are to make a real dent in this area, retention strategies must begin at the recruitment stage.

The key is to determine a candidate’s reasons for entering the profession and long-time career prospects before they are offered the role, through implementing stricter selection criteria to improve quality of hire. While it may be tempting to fill empty posts quickly, the long-term benefits of getting the right people on board are evident. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the person with the most experience. We recently placed a former mechanic into a HCA role who, because of personal experience, wanted to change careers and give something back – the client agreed that his passion and commitment made him the perfect fit for the organisation going forward.

While staffing challenges across the healthcare sector look set to continue for the foreseeable future, organisations can still build future-fit workforces by taking a step back and taking a more considered approach to hiring. Instead of firefighting, decision makers must take firmer control of their workforce strategy to create productive workplaces to the benefit of both patients and their wider teams.

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