The NHS People Plan; a much needed roadmap for flexible working and a workforce fit for the future

The NHS People Plan; a much needed roadmap for flexible working and a workforce fit for the future

There is a global workforce crisis in healthcare. With not enough staff to meet rising demand, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimate that by 2030 there will be a global shortage in healthcare of 18 million workers.

It is, therefore, no surprise that the biggest issue facing the NHS is workforce; staff recruitment, retention, training and support. We not only need to attract more people to work in health we also need a new and more radical approach to people management, with flexible and agile working a core element of this.

It’s something that I have blogged about before, many times. My view? Flexible and agile working is key to this, in fact, it’s absolutely critical.

Working with Yorkshire and The Humber Leadership Academy, the Inspiring Leaders Network carried out the largest ever national survey of healthcare staff in England on flexible working earlier this year. Our research and the subsequent report published earlier this month has met with unequivocal support from colleagues across the NHS and in other industries. Not one voice has stated that flexible working is unachievable or disagreed with the need for a workforce to have more work-life balance.

So, the intention, demand and desire are there, but is the system capable of delivering?

Does the NHS People Plan give us what we want?

We released our report in the week that the Interim NHS People Plan was published. We had awaited it with anticipation, hoping for the recognition that flexible and agile working was an integral part of the ongoing plan for retention, recruitment and support of people working in the NHS.

And yes, on page 3 right at the start of the plan, it acknowledges that ‘our people want to have more flexible careers and a better work/life balance’, and one of the key aims of the Plan is ‘Making the NHS the best place to work’ which includes ‘delivering our vision for flexible working’. In fact, search for ‘flexible’ in the 76-page report and it’s referenced 33 times.

But does the plan go far enough?

What became clear to me reading the plan was that it had acceptance, acknowledgement and action. Possibly for the first time, not just a recognition that things need to improve, but concrete suggestions as to how. My hope is that when the full plan is published by the end of the calendar year it will have more detail and clarity on what actions will be taken.

Flexible working as a right for all, not a privilege for a few

For me, though, we have to move from ‘accommodating’ staff who request flexible and agile working, to developing our understanding of how work and health care can be built around the changing way that more and more people want to work. Fundamentally, we need a rethink about what we consider and think of as flexible working, and our thoughts attitudes and behaviours towards it.

Flexible working has to be seen as more than just reducing hours, occasionally working from home, job share or flexibility in roles. A cultural mindset shift is needed to ensure a more agile, home-based workforce can contribute to the ever-changing and ever-challenging healthcare needs of our population. A failure by policymakers and organisations to recognise and respond to this will exacerbate the problem, and I’m hopeful that the People Plan will enable organisations to act.

Most importantly, there should be a recognition that flexible working will benefit the healthcare we provide to our population. Taking a more flexible approach to workforce practices will enable systems to begin to really see the benefits of integrated care through more joined up roles and multiform working which will see a sharing of knowledge between services and help to support a more holistic approach for the people we serve.

The largest-ever survey of healthcare staff in England on flexible working

The survey that we carried out set out to identify the thoughts of a range of people who work in healthcare in England on flexible working. What was also considered as part of the survey was ‘diverse multi-form working’, offering flexibility in a role, such as taking on a mix of clinical and non-clinical duties. Overwhelmingly, respondents said that flexible working was important to them – 92% of those surveyed agreed with this.         

It was also clear from the survey that having a flexible option of work is highly important in people’s next career move with 85% of respondents saying it is either very important or important, suggesting a need to ensure future roles across the system, and in organisations, are structured to maximise the potential attraction of new recruits and people looking to change roles.

Flexible working for individuals, not one-size fits all

My view has always been that a flexible working approach should be individualised rather than taking a ‘one-size fits all’ approach. How one person wants to work is very much different to the next, and culturally we need to see our workforce as individuals and not groups of staff who work the same way, and this is where I think the People Plan could be stronger, recognising that flexibility could mean something that is unique to an individual, because of their work and life.

The appointment of the new NHS Chief People Officer, Prerana Issar is a very positive one, and bodes well for the implementation of the actions in the People Plan. Having heard her speak and outline her plans and vision for the future, I know she adds something different – not least because she joins the NHS from the United Nations – to a landscape that needs both innovation and diverse thinking.

So while the People Plan is not a start, it is a good next step for healthcare, and one that will hopefully mean far-reaching and positive changes for the NHS workforce now and in our future.

You can read our full report and details of our survey at or get in touch to continue the conversation.             

Read the Interim NHS People Plan at