News, Workforce

How NHS leaders can ease staffing pressures over winter


Dr Anas Nader discusses the steps the NHS can take to deliver sustainable and long-term workforce improvements that benefit staff, systems and patients.

The NHS is bracing for another tough winter. Exacerbated by a record waiting list of almost 8 million and a rise in flu and norovirus hospitalisations, all signs point to an intense period of pressure for an NHS that’s already struggling.

To even begin to tackle the challenges this season will bring, the NHS needs a healthy, well-equipped workforce manning the front lines. But with 84 per cent of healthcare leaders understandably worried about the impact of winter pressures on levels of clinical burnout, there’s never been a more acute need to embrace solutions that will ease workforce pressures and support staff in the short and long-term.

Turn flexibility commitments into tangible offers

Recent years have seen a lot of discussion around flexibility for healthcare professionals. And despite the challenges involved in enabling flexibility in an organisational system as complex as the NHS, we are starting to see this rhetoric translate into action.

There is no better time than now to pick up the pace and drive these efforts forward. Facilitating better work-life balance by accounting for staff preferences when rostering is foundational to a healthy future for the NHS workforce and is key to turning the tide on worrying levels of staff exit.

If we can make it easier for clinicians to balance their personal and professional commitments, while maintaining patient safety, the NHS can become a place where every staff member feels supported and valued in their role.

A genuine flexible workforce puts employee empowerment at the heart of decision making. Crucially, this commitment to flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean staff working fewer hours – but it does mean enabling them to have a say in their rota. This can be achieved in many ways. From rolling-out self-rostering technology and moving from a spreadsheet system to one powered by the latest technology and algorithms, to ending the archaic way in which swaps are handled and ensuring staff can book leave much further in advance.

The NHS Staff Survey brought to light that only half (50.2 per cent) of the NHS workforce felt as though they were involved in decisions about changes affecting their work area or team. Being at the mercy of an impersonal, centralised rota will inevitably lead to frustration for staff and increase the likelihood of burnout. It’s time to empower the NHS workforce so they can remain in their roles without compromising their personal lives.

Leverage your data

Our ability to access and analyse data has never been greater. In the NHS, we are collecting reams of data constantly. But not every organisation has access to the necessary tools to put it to good use. Developing ways to leverage organisational data to spot staffing trends can be a game-changer.

Data is the perfect tool for optimising human decision-making. Analysing workforce activity, costs and performance metrics to improve judgements is vital to boosting cost efficiency and growth when it comes to staffing. If we are able to systematically match demand for care with the supply of staff, we can more easily identify hotspots of pressure and redeploy staff appropriately.

This gives managers actionable insights and saves precious decision-making time. Weaving up-to-date data into decision-making also allows teams to be anticipatory – modelling staffing solutions in response to emerging trends, instead of simply firefighting. If we can reliably predict which shifts might be understaffed, we can try and reduce the impact on those working, equipping them with the right support in advance.

A data-first culture also facilitates transparency and accountability on multiple levels. Staff are more likely to unite around decisions informed by, and tailored to, data that matches their reality. And once new initiatives have been put into motion, data has the unique ability to illuminate their successes and setbacks in granular detail, ensuring that no opportunities are missed.

It’s critical that NHS leaders take time now to engage with data, employing it to drive their decisions and empower staff as demand intensifies this winter.

Prioritise collaboration

In order to unlock vital resources in particularly pressured times, regional collaboration can help. Pooling resources across organisations and within integrated care systems (ICSs) can be made to work effectively; enabling staff to safely move in line with demand.

The North West Doctors in Training Collaborative Bank (NWCB), for example, is the largest of its kind in the UK. It has acted as a staffing safety net for the 24 participating trusts since its creation in 2020. The bank has allowed thousands of approved clinical trainees to work shifts outside of their host organisation, reducing the need for extra paperwork which previously restricted movement. The initiative is just one example of how collaboration can grant staff more autonomy when choosing shifts whilst also helping managers plug staffing gaps in line with patient demand.

With the formal introduction of ICSs last year, NHS leaders have the perfect opportunity to make collaborating a priority, in the hopes of delivering more joined up care for patients, but also as a necessary shift towards more sustainable staffing solutions and a healthier workforce.

The root cause of the pressure on NHS workers is often buried beneath the backlog of patients waiting for treatment – in reality, it’s the rigidity of schedules and lack of sufficient staff and resources supporting them, which leads to burnout.

By prioritising flexibility, data-driven decision making and collaboration over the coming months, NHS leaders can drive forward improvements which are tailored and genuinely effective for the clinicians and managers feeling the winter strain.

Dr Anas Nader, Co-Founder and CEO of Patchwork Health