Older people are key to tackling NHS staff shortages, says The King's Fund report

Experienced and skilled older workers are retiring early from the NHS in ever-increasing numbers due to heavy workloads, long hours and low morale, says a report from The King's Fund.

Great to be Grey: How can the NHS recruit and retain more older staff?, by Sandra Meadows, warns the government that its modernisation plans are in danger unless older people are encouraged against taking early retirement and more older staff are recruited to fill vacant health service posts. It also says the NHS should adopt flexible working practices such as those pioneered in some private sector employers.

Nursing and medicine are set to suffer the worst staffing losses over the next few years. One in five nurses are aged 50 years and over and eligible for early retirement at 55, while one in four family doctors in some health authority areas in the UK are due to retire in the next five to 10 years. The allied health professions (radiographers, physiotherapists and occupational therapists) are also facing crippling shortages as one in five workers are aged between 45 and 54 and approaching retirement.

Report author Sandra Meadows said:

'One in seven workers in the NHS, about 150,000 people, are aged 50 years 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. Our research also shows they are overwhelmed by the plethora of directives issued from central Government and fear the standard of patient care is at risk due to scarce resources. Older workers often feel they have no alternative but to leave the NHS.'

Great to be Grey examines the numbers of older people in the NHS retiring early; the reasons they are leaving; and asks what the NHS can learn from other sectors about recruiting and retaining older people. It concludes that the UK's ageing workforce, combined with the fact that fewer young people are coming forward to fill vacancies, make it essential that the NHS has imaginative policies in place to encourage older staff to join and stay in the health service.

The report, which is based on interviews with older people working in the NHS, recommends that the health service:

  • Invests heavily in recruiting and retaining older staff, particularly in nursing and medicine where vacancy rates are highest
  • Focuses on the employment needs of older people, particularly those caring for dependants, and on the needs of the growing number of middle-aged staff
  • Sets up training schemes that allow older workers to learn new skills and move more easily across professional boundaries and into new professions
  • Allows older workers to work more flexibly through career breaks, sabbaticals and part-time working.

Read the report: Great to be Grey: How can the NHS recruit and retain more older staff?

Notes to editors: 

Great to be Grey: How can the NHS recruit and retain more older staff?, by Sandra Meadows, is available from The King's Fund bookshop on 020 7307 2591, price £8.

The research for Great to be Grey was conducted via focus groups with older NHS staff (aged 45 and over); interviews with other major stakeholders within the NHS and senior managers from other sectors; and a review of existing literature and research going back to the early 1990s on the ageing of the workforce.

For review copies or interviews with the authors, please contact Daniel Reynolds on 020 7307 2581 or 07831 554927.