By Brendan Wincott, managing director of Guardian Support, an HR, Employment Law and Health and Safety consultancy (www.guardiansupport.co.uk)
The care sector is facing an unprecedented recruitment challenge which is being compounded by high staff turnover (31%) and increasing vacancies (currently 8%). While UK employers are increasingly relying on overseas workers, this is not enough.
It is unlikely that the NHS or government will be able to solve this issue themselves. In this blog, we focus on employers, their legal duties towards nursing staff and how they can potentially increase the recruitment and retention of nurses.
Why is there a shortage of nurses in the UK?
There are many factors that have influenced the nursing shortage. The Covid-19 pandemic put immense pressure on the healthcare system, ramping up nurse demand. This resulted in significantly heavier workloads, burnout and mental health issues.
When you couple these poor working conditions with the severely low pay, one can understand why these professionals are choosing to leave the healthcare sector or not enter it at all.
What are employers’ legal duties & how can they help nurses?
UK employers are legally required to adhere to the rules and regulations set out by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. In terms of the nursing sector, employers must do everything in their power to ensure a safe working environment for nurses.
This includes assessing risks (such as patient handling, use of equipment, and exposure to infectious diseases) and implementing preventative measures. Additionally, nurses must be supplied with the correct personal protective equipment, as this will prevent exposure to harmful pathogens.
Employment contracts for nursing staff
Employment contracts should be fair to both parties. Something that has been increasingly seen in nurses’ employment contracts is restrictive covenants, which are more commonly known as non-compete clauses.
With these clauses, an employee agrees to refrain from competing against the employer, poaching colleagues or inducing customers away from the employer. Often, these clauses also stipulate a geographical area where nurses may not work. Employers should take care when including such clauses, as they should aim to protect the interests of the business while still being fair to the employee and any future work opportunities they may be presented with.
Navigating poor work performance in a nursing shortage
During a crisis such as this, it can be difficult for employers to navigate the way forward. Should employers be dealing with issues like poor performance more leniently? And should the criteria for nursing recruitment change?
Ideally, employers should always strive to attract and retain top talent. One of the first courses of action you should take is to conduct a background check on your nurses. This will help you determine whether they are fit to work with vulnerable adults and other groups.
Additionally, you should ensure they are registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council) and hold a relevant associate or bachelor’s degree.
During the duration of the employment contract, it’s also essential that you conduct appraisals with your nursing staff. This will help you to determine if they are still performing at a satisfactory level. If not, you should use the opportunity to understand why this is the case and provide the training and support needed to improve a nurse’s performance.
How else can you support nursing staff?
Many nursing staff have left their jobs in the past year, citing reasons such as anxiety, stress, depression and other mental health issues. As an employer, you have a duty of care towards your nursing staff, and apart from ensuring their health and safety, you should also take steps to support their welfare. Providing mental health support as well as training can assist nurses with the skills needed to work in such a taxing environment.
Final Thoughts on the nursing shortage
The nursing shortage is a crisis for the UK sector, and in such a climate, employers are faced with the challenges of attracting and retaining skilled nurses while still ensuring legal compliance.
Providing employment contracts that are fair to both employer and employee can help with attracting and retaining skilled nurses. Additionally, employers should look to support staff welfare through mental health assistance and training.