Nursing workforce planning: are we just playing a numbers game?

calculator graphMost people who read the news in the UK are likely to have read recent articles that point to the possibility that there is a shortage of nurses[i][ii][iii]. In a time when we are talking about reconfiguring the way care is offered and moving care into people’s homes it is also well documented that we have an aging nursing workforce with particular concerns in community nursing.  In a report by the RCN in 2012, it was identified that almost 60% of the community nursing workforce could if they chose, retire in the next decade. Of course, it’s not just about the numbers of nurses who leave – it’s also the level of expertise that the system loses when these experienced nurses, who are likely to have up to 3 decades of experience, retire.

There are steps in place to try to attract nurses who were once registered but left the profession back into practice. This work is being led by Health Education England with a concerted public campaign to attract once registered nurses to undertake a period of updating to encourage them to return. You can read more about the campaign here.

Whilst workforce planning as a numbers game is important – we need to make sure we have an adequate flow of newly qualified nurses – what could be just as important is retaining those with the long years of experience to help to pass on their tacit knowledge and skills before they leave the profession through retirement.

Bearing this in mind a paper by Liebermann et al (2015) caught my eye. They discuss that, as well as adequately addressing the recruitment of new nurses, we also need to make sure we retain new entrants and encourage older nurses to postpone their retirement.

anne 1989 on wardI am now 51 and in the last year or so I have thought about the prospect of retirement more than ever in my life. I realise this is a natural progression, that looking forward is a good thing; I also recognise that if every one of my generation does this, there could be an inevitable skill gap. There are ways less experienced nurses can be supported to offer safe care such as decision support technology but even I (as a nurse with a passion for technology) know that this can never replace decades of practice experience. So what do we know about why it is that nurses seek to leave the profession early?

Liebermann et al undertook a longitudinal study via questionnaire that sought to understand what conditions were most likely to encourage nurses to stay, with a focus on the possible differences between younger and older nurses. In other words, do we need to do different things to encourage younger nurses to stick with nursing and for older nurses to encourage them to put off an early retirement?

In some ways the conclusions are not surprising – nurses need good management support to stay and to help them to keep up to the hard demands that nursing places on us. What is perhaps more interesting is that they found differences between the younger and older nurses. The researchers concluded that ‘supervisors [managers] should foster nurses’ expectation of remaining in the same job until retirement age by providing age-specific job resources’ (Liebermann et al 2015).

By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We know that a multi-generational workforce may require different leadership styles, so called ‘baby boomers’ may differ from ‘generation x’ or ‘millennials’, but do we equally need to look at what conditions keep nurses satisfied with their work conditions in this generational way too?

I think this is a fascinating thought that we may need to think about. So, it’s possible that any efforts we make to encourage people to stay in nursing, if we don’t understand the needs of particular generations, may fail. My final point is are we just addressing a numbers game, when we need to start to focus in some detail on how we can retain nurses, recognising that different generations may have different needs?

Liebermann SC., Muller A., Weigal M.,Wegge J (2015) ‘Antecedents of the expectation of remaining in nursing until retirement age’ Journal of Advanced Nursing doi: 10.1111/jan12634

With thanks to Dr Susan Hamer for bringing this journal article to my attention :0)

PS thanks to Ruth Auton for pointing out this paper from HEE