The current nurse-recruitment crisis in the UK is a matter of record. The particular demands of working in mental health make recruiting nurses for this specialist field even more challenging.
Healthcare organisations in the public and private sectors have responded by launching initiatives to develop their own nursing pools through alternative channels of education and training (see the ‘Grow your own nurses’ article on this site).
The problem, though, goes beyond persuading nursing candidates to commit to a career in healthcare. They also need to have good reasons for staying in the profession. The reality is that a growing number of qualified nurses in the UK are jumping ship.
According to a recent report by the House of Commons Health Committee, around 29,000 UK nurses and midwives left the profession in 2016-17, up from just under 21,000 in 2012-13, with many citing difficult working conditions or saying they felt undervalued.
Recruitment not retention
As the Committee pointed out, most government policy has focused on boosting the intake of new nurses, rather than working to retain existing nurses. Its report also highlighted reductions in available funding for nurses’ continuing professional development (CPD), which has shrunk from £205 million to £84 million in just two years.
It has been argued that mature students are more likely to stay in nursing. Here, though, the impact of a slump in applications for undergraduate nursing courses is especially pronounced.
Data from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) show that in 2017, 4,575 applicants aged 21 to 25 years were accepted onto university nursing courses, a drop of 13 per cent on 2016, while the number of applicants aged 26 years and over (8,450) fell by 6.0 per cent year on year.
This is particularly worrying given that mature students make up a relatively high proportion of students in areas where nurse shortages are particularly marked, such as mental health and learning disabilities.
One way to give nurses, in mental health or anywhere else, a sense of purpose and value that encourages them to stick with their profession is by offering them a meaningful and compelling career path.
At The Huntercombe Group (THG) we have addressed this need through our RCN Nurse Leadership Programme, which is now entering its fourth year. The programme is supported by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and receives about 40 applications (for around 18 places) a year from nurses working for THG who are either already in senior roles, or who have been identified as senior or charge nurses of the future.
The Nurse Leadership Programme includes a four-day residential course geared to developing self-awareness, followed by peer-supported action learning and a work-based project that participants present to the organisational board and others at a Huntercombe Group Nurse Leadership conference. Around 50 nurse leaders have been through the programme to date.
Some of the work-based projects developed as part of the programme are taken forward within THG, to general benefit. These projects do not necessarily have to be clinical. One such example was a project that challenged the business on its maternity benefits for nurses, resulting in a change in maternity policy across the group.
Making great leaders
Essentially, the Nurse Leadership Programme is about making great leaders out of nurses who might otherwise have transitioned to managerial roles without any specialised training.
People who have strong vocational skills are not always equipped with the skills they need for leadership, nor may they want to be. Nurses need a particular set of skills and behavioural traits to manage other nurses or support workers.
This also comes back to making sure that nurse retention is firmly embedded as a strategy across The Huntercombe Group. Where nursing staff are properly trained in key roles, attrition can be reduced – and indeed has been. In 2017, nurse attrition at THG was down by 19% against the previous year.
The best leaders are not only more committed to the organisation they serve. They also inspire others within that organisation to stay the course, maximise their abilities, take responsibility and pursue leadership opportunities themselves.
Nurse retention is a tough proposition for any healthcare organisation, and in the mental-health sector it presents special difficulties. Our RCN Nurse Leadership Programme is not the whole solution but it goes a long way towards convincing mental-health nurses they are on the right career path within The Huntercombe Group.