Should nursing staff be able to choose their hours?
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Should nursing staff be able to choose their hours?

Lynne Pearce Health journalist

As UK healthcare employers struggle to recruit nurses, a care home has introduced flexible hours

With almost nine out of ten care home providers sayingthey have problems attracting and retaining staff, could offering complete flexibility on working hours be a solution?

Nursing Older People. 35, 5, 18-19. doi: 10.7748/nop.35.5.18.s7

Published: 03 October 2023

One organisation is attempting to turn the tide with a progressive ‘tell us the hours you want to work’ initiative for new and existing staff.

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Picture credit: iStock

What if we change our approach to shifts?

‘With the nursing shortage in the UK, we were struggling to recruit nurses,’ says Susan Jones, chief people officer at Maria Mallaband Care Group, which runs 80 care homes in England and Scotland, employing more than 580 nurses.

‘The most searched term in the UK jobs market when it comes to care is part-time’

Laura Finlay, head of talent, Maria Mallaband Care Group

‘When I first came here two and a half years ago, staff could only work full or part-time, and the 12-hour shift was absolutely rigid. We tried to think outside the box, asking if we change our approach, can we offer something that gives more flexibility?’

The resulting initiative was piloted successfully at 24 homes in September 2022, with a follow-up at a further 20 in phase two, before eventually being rolled out across the organisation.

Under the new scheme, the group offers staff a minimum of five hours a week, with individuals able to choose the days and times they would like to work, which can be a fixed pattern or flexible, and includes days and nights.

Staff are ‘in the driving seat’

‘They’re in the driving seat,’ says the group’s head of talent, Laura Finlay. ‘Already we have a couple of people working six hours a week. They can also top up those hours if they want to or they can join our bank, which we’ve bolstered so we can accommodate those who are working flexibly.’

At interview, the group will ask what hours the person wants to work and what a good shift looks like for them. ‘We then check with the care home manager that it’s something they can accommodate – and more than nine times out of ten, they can,’ says Ms Finlay.

‘We then make the offer on that basis. Since we launched, 62% of our newly hired people have been flexible.’

Top tips for introducing a flexible working initiative

  • » Think differently, says Maria Mallaband Care Group head of talent Laura Finlay. ‘We have a distinct lack of people who want to work in social care, so we need to try different things,’ she says. ‘You’ll find you attract a diverse range of talent’

  • » Empower those who will be running the initiative, says the group’s chief people officer Susan Jones, by giving them the training, tools and support they need

  • » Ensure managers understand the reasoning behind the change, she adds. ‘It was important they understood why we were doing this. This includes providing more consistency of care and people not leaving the organisation. If they understand why, they’ll put more energy and effort into making it work’

  • » Start small, advises Ms Finlay. ‘We began with 24 homes,’ she says. ‘You don’t have to do everything at once, but trial things instead to see what works’

The flexible hours initiative should be adaptable to other settings too, says Ms Jones. ‘It might take a bit more organisation to ensure you’ve got the right coverage, but it should be transferable.’

Among the benefits has been enhanced diversity in the workforce, says Ms Finlay. ‘We’ve opened ourselves up to such a wide pocket of people,’ she says. This includes working parents, who want to schedule working hours around school times, and those who are semi-retired, who do not want to work long shifts.

‘The most searched term in the UK jobs market when it comes to care is part-time,’ she says.

Shifts that work for me, my new business and my family

Once a director in charge of 20 care homes, Ioana Pop (pictured) reevaluated her priorities as a result of the pandemic.

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‘I decided I wanted to take a step back and look after my family, who I felt had been neglected by my career ambitions,’ says Ms Pop, who came to the UK 12 years ago from Romania and has been a qualified nurse for 23 years.

She decided to start her own business in aesthetics and body contouring. ‘I wanted to combine medicine with beauty,’ she says. But she found working alone could be lonely and she also wanted to maintain her nursing registration.

‘I needed to find a place where I could be with people again and make a big difference in residents’ lives,’ says Ms Pop.

After looking at a variety of options, but struggling to find the hours she wanted, she applied for a vacancy at the Maria Mallaband Care Group’s Highfield Care Home in Saffron Walden, which provides residential nursing care for older people, alongside dementia care, with 54 residents in total.

‘The home has been extremely flexible with my hours,’ says Ms Pop, who joined the team just under two months ago. ‘That’s why I chose them. It’s been so amazing I almost can’t believe it.’

‘They always accommodate my requests’

In practice, Highfield asks her in advance when she would like to work, checking to see that she is still happy with the arrangements. ‘At the moment, I’m working on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, or sometimes Thursdays, on 12-hour shifts, which is my choice,’ says Ms Pop.

‘It depends on my availability. They always accommodate my requests.’

The arrangements are enabling Ms Pop to build up her own business steadily, but with the safety net of a regular income. Looking ahead, she knows that there will be peaks and troughs in demand for her aesthetics services, with the care home already agreeing to provide more or less work during those times.

‘It means so much to me,’ she says. ‘I have an income every month, which gives me security, and I’m working in a great environment, with an amazing team. It’s also about my life and my family. I’m so delighted that I found this company.’

Impact on staff absence and attrition

Tangible benefits of the initiative also include low staff absence rates, reduced numbers of staff leaving and feedback showing higher engagement. The group also has its lowest vacancy rate for nurses since the flexible working initiative was introduced.

But the change has not been without its challenges. ‘For the home managers, this has been quite a different approach,’ says Ms Jones. ‘There was a little bit of resistance.

‘If you’re trying to bring people in with part-time hours, drawing up rotas is more complex. But we’ve worked hard to understand, giving them the capability to manage it.’

In the past, many of the group’s care homes used a lot of agency staff to plug gaps, says Ms Finlay. ‘It meant many managers weren’t having to rota because the agency were doing it for their own people. When managers had to plan their own rotas, it was a bit confusing at first, especially thinking about being flexible and the impact that might have.’

‘Drawing up rotas is more complex. But we’ve worked hard to understand, giving home managers the capability to manage it’

Susan Jones, chief people officer, Maria Mallaband Care Group

Enabling the experts to train others

To help, they created experts within the organisation, who had been involved in the initiative from its first phase. ‘We’ve used these managers to train others and that’s worked really well for us,’ says Ms Finlay.

Reducing dependency on agency staff has improved the consistency of care residents receive, Ms Finlay believes, with positive feedback also coming from residents and their friends and families, who enjoy seeing staff who are familiar. ‘It’s had so many benefits and the care home managers can see that now,’ she says.

‘They’re not having to use agency staff and the workforce is happier, with teams that know each other. Fast forward a year, and if you ask any of our managers, they’d say this is the best thing we’ve ever done.’

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