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NHS nursing staff in England, Scotland and Wales can now request flexible working from their first day of employment. Previously, they had to wait six months before they could request a change to their working pattern.

The changes, which came into force last September also mean NHS nursing staff in England and Wales can make unlimited applications for flexible working, instead of just one a year, and submit applications without having to justify requests or provide specific reasons.

Northern Ireland is expected to follow similar measures, with discussions between employers and trade unions currently ongoing. For staff in Scotland, these specific provisions are under discussion as part of the “Once for Scotland” workforce policies programme.

Nursing staff may be missing out

In addition, staff are able to access a process where managers must refer requests that can't be accommodated initially, to ensure all possible solutions are explored. The escalation process that individuals can follow is in Section 33 of NHS Terms and Conditions.

“Although this change has come in, many nursing staff don’t know about it and may be missing out,” says Maggy Heaton, staff-side rep for Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Chair of the RCN UK Stewards Committee.

“Many traditional 12-hour nursing shifts begin early morning or late evening, which can be a difficult time for nursing staff who might have young children and limited childcare options. They might not realise they can ask for a change to this usual pattern, and often by just speaking to managers, a more flexible request is successful,” she says. 

For a long time, nursing has been seen as an inflexible profession

Recruitment and retention

Poor work-life balance is often given as a key reason for employees wanting to leave the health service. The flexible working agreement is expected to help recruit and retain health care staff at a time when the extra demands of the pandemic have left staff exhausted with many re-evaluating their priorities and considering leaving the profession.

The RCN has updated its guide for reps supporting staff in requesting flexible working, which outlines how reps can be a catalyst for positive change in their workplace.

“It covers all aspects of flexible working in a nursing setting,” says Maggy, who helped to update the Working Flexibly to Support a Healthy Work-life Balance guidance.

“As well as outlining legislation and providing tips for reps, there are also case studies to show what has been done to support staff requests for flexible working and how staff can work with managers to negotiate a working pattern that suits everyone. Employers outside the NHS determine their own flexible working policies, but these must comply with the minimum legislative requirements which are also set out in the guide.”

Maggy’s negotiated many flexible working requests as part of her role and believes the new measures are essential to ensure a modern, progressive nursing workforce.

“For a long time, nursing has been seen as an inflexible profession with early starts and late nights,” says Maggy. “But circumstances change and what suits one person, might not suit another. Yes, nursing is a 24-hour job, but there could be an even bigger number of nursing staff leaving if trusts don’t permit flexible working.”

Maggy suggests nursing staff simply have a conversation about what changes they want to their working hours, making sure they allow plenty of time to discuss and implement changes with their manager.

Managers would rather retain staff then have them leave

“I had a member who was a single parent who wanted to start a little later in the morning, due to childcare issues” says Maggy. “It would mean her missing the handover, but working with her manager, we found a way to support her request and get the handover from a colleague when she started. “And It’s not just for parents; someone might have a hobby or caring responsibilities. It’s a good thing to offer flexibility to take the pressure off hardworking staff.”

Maggy suggests there’s been a long culture of set shift patterns in the NHS, meaning managers aren’t always keen on changes being requested, but the new measures are starting to alter this way of thinking. “Often there’s a compromise involved, but managers would rather retain staff and try and find a solution than have that person leave and have to recruit.”

Nursing staff should also be reasonable and expect to be flexible too, says Maggy. “A lot of the time, it’s very simple to sort,” she adds.

Maggy’s top tips for RCN reps negotiating flexible working requests:

  1. Make sure you’re familiar with your employer’s flexible working policy.
  2. Find out exactly what the member wants – this might just mean an informal meeting to discuss what they’re struggling with and what they can realistically do.
  3. Encourage flexibility on both sides – sometimes members might feel their requests will be turned down, but often managers just need to understand what’s required and want to keep staff happy.
  4. Be sensitive – sometimes staff might have a family issue they’re struggling with or may feel something is sensitive to speak about. Encourage absolute honesty with staff so that the request can be considered fairly.
  5. Refer to the updated RCN guidance and make management aware of the changes to flexible working provisions in the NHS if they’re unsure.

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