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Changes in childcare, seeking a better work-life balance or fitting in study may mean the job you once loved becomes difficult to manage around other commitments. Rather than looking for a new role, it’s worth exploring more flexible working.  

Since September 2021, those employed by the NHS in England and Wales have the contractual right to request flexible working from day one of their employment, make more than one request a year and access an escalation process if their initial request is refused.

In Scotland, the day one right to request has been agreed, while other provisions are being discussed as part of the “Once for Scotland” policy.  Northern Ireland is expected to follow the England and Wales provisions in time.

“If you work for the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales, there’s now no qualifying period before you can ask to work flexibly and in England and Wales there’s no limit to the number of applications you can make,” says RCN National Officer Gill Morgan. 

“You don’t need to give a reason why you’re seeking a change – everyone can ask. And you shouldn’t just be turned down by your employer. They must consider your request seriously, discuss it and any variations to it with you, and if they can’t agree to it, give a very clear and detailed reason why.” 

You don’t need to give a reason why you’re seeking a change – everyone can ask

Top tips for applying for flexible working 

  • Talk to your local RCN rep first or seek advice from RCN Direct, says Gill. “Remember that if you’re planning to reduce your hours, you need to be clear about things such as how that might impact your pension and annual leave,” she says. Remember even if your overall hours stay the same, your pay may alter if your new pattern changes the number of unsocial hours.
  • Rather than having just one option for flexible working, try having two or three that might work for you, suggests Gill. “That way you can say to your manager, if you don’t think that will work, how about this?”
  • Think about the benefits of your proposal for your team and the wider organisation, advises NHS Employers. “By preparing for some of the questions your line manager may ask you, it will help you to have a better conversation,” they say. They also encourage staff to have an informal chat with their line manager at the outset. 
  • While it may not be possible to continue working as you’d like in your current ward or clinic, it may be achievable elsewhere with the same employer, advises Gill. “You need to consider what’s most important to you,” she says. 

Changing the culture

With the aim of improving consistency, the new provisions include an escalation stage if a line manager doesn’t initially agree a request, as well as an appeal process against any final decisions. 

Employers are also expected to promote flexible working options at the point of recruitment and through one-to-ones, appraisals and team meetings.   

The changes could be one way of helping to address the recruitment and retention problems in the NHS. Results from the RCN’s most recent employment survey, carried out last year, showed 57% of respondents were either thinking about leaving their job or actively planning to leave. Just one in three said they’re able to balance their home and working lives, and just over a quarter felt dissatisfied with their choice of shift patterns.

“It’s about changing the culture,” says Gill. “We know that many nursing staff are still being told ‘no we don’t do flexible working here’. Too often, there’s a perception that things have always been run in a particular way and that’s the only possible option. But it’s a very outdated way of thinking.

“As well as current staff wanting and needing to work differently, we have a new generation of staff coming into the NHS who very clearly expect to work differently. Unfortunately, despite the changes introduced last September, many requests are still hitting a brick wall.”  

Ultimately, I’d like to see people discussing the art of the possible

Although the NHS is still experiencing significant and continuing pressures, it’s important not to let this stop you asking for different arrangements to improve your working life, Gill says. 

“We don’t want people to feel they can’t ask, because they don’t think they’ll get it due to staffing issues,” she says. “You still have a contractual right to make your request, even if there are vacancies in your workplace or no-one else is working flexibly. 

“Ultimately, I’d like to see people discussing the art of the possible – let’s look at what we can do. 

"Surely, it’s worth a manager taking the time to discuss and agree mutually acceptable options with a member of their team, rather than lose that individual from the workforce?"

You still have a contractual right to make your request, even if there are vacancies in your workplace

What are the options? 

Common types of flexible working include:

  • fixed working patterns – giving certainty over hours worked and/or location
  • part-time working 
  • flexi-time around core hours
  • averaged hours over an agreed period, which may be annual, biannual, quarterly or monthly
  • compressed or elongated hours, allowing work to be condensed or stretched over a specific time
  • job-sharing
  • school term-time working
  • swapping hours
  • voluntary reduced working time
  • a career break
  • flexible retirement
  • homeworking for some or all of the time
  • shift work.

Find out more about these options and how to make a flexible working request. 

What about the independent sector? 

Although the new arrangements only apply to those in the NHS, independent health and social care employers can determine their own policies which must comply with minimum legislative requirements. 

All employees have the statutory right to ask for flexible working if they: 

  • are an employee – but not an agency worker or in the armed forces 
  • have worked for their employer for 26 weeks continuously before applying 
  • have not made another application to work flexibly during the previous 12 months.

Employers must deal with any requests in a “reasonable manner”.  For example, they should:

  • assess the advantages and disadvantages of the application
  • hold a meeting to discuss the request with the employee as soon as possible
  • offer an appeals process.

More information

See the NHS Employers website for guidance and resources on the contractual provisions for flexible working. They include:

The provisions are covered in section 33 of the NHS Terms and Conditions of Service Handbook.

Words by Lynne Pearce.

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