Headlines: December 12th, 2002

Plans to modernise the National Health Service are being hampered because an increasing number of experienced and skilled older workers are retiring early to escape heavy workloads, long hours and low morale, according to a report today from the King’s Fund.’Great to be Grey’ warns the Government that its plans are in danger unless older people are encouraged to stay on and more older staff are recruited to fill vacancies in the health service. The report, produced by Sandra Meadows also calls on the NHS to adopt flexible working practices like those pioneered by some private sector employers.

The document says nursing and medicine are set to suffer their worst staffing losses over the next few years. One nurse in every five is aged 50 or more and eligible for early retirement at 55. At the same time one in four family doctors in some health authority areas is due to retire in the next five to ten years. Allied professions like radiography, physiotherapy and occupational therapy are also facing crippling shortages with one in five workers aged between 45 and 54 and approaching retirement.

Sandra Meadows said, “One in seven workers in the NHS, about 150,000 people, are aged 50 or over. With fewer young people taking up jobs in the health service, it is crucial we hold on to experienced and skilled older workers, who have a wealth of knowledge and expertise.

“At the moment older workers are leaving the NHS as they feel over-worked, disillusioned, physically exhausted and stuck in rigid career paths and inflexible working practices.”

She added that research also showed workers are overwhelmed by the plethora of directives issued from central Government and they fear the standard of patient care is at risk because of lack of resources. “Older workers often feel they have no alternative but to leave the NHS,” she said.

The report, which is based on interviews with older people working in the health service, recommends heavy investment in recruiting and retaining older staff, particularly in nursing and medicine where vacancy rates are highest. It also calls for more focus on the employment needs of older people, particularly those who care for dependants, and on the needs of the growing number of middle-aged staff. Underlining the need for imaginative ways to recruit and retain older staff it also points to the need for training schemes that allow older workers to learn new skills and for schemes which enable them to work more flexibly, such as career breaks, sabbaticals and part-time working.