While there are far more men in England’s working population than women, 77% of the NHS workforce is female. So, the issue of flexible working is especially pertinent for women working in healthcare.

In 2014, all UK employees were granted the legal right to request flexible working hours – a legal right already afforded to working parents. But, in the drastically understaffed NHS, the question of flexibility is more complicated.

Your rights

If you’re a full-time NHS employee, to apply for flexible working (which could be part-time hours, compressed hours or flexi-time) you must have been working for a particular employer for at least 26 weeks continuously. You still get these rights as a bank employee.

There are various stipulations in terms of how you can make your request and how you can appeal if your request is denied – full details of which are available from the Royal College of Nursing.

Why it benefits employers

Here are just a few widely accepted benefits of flexible working for employers:

Cost savings: by offering hours to suit working mums, absence is less likely. Reduced absenteeism is hugely important in the NHS for lots of reasons, but first and foremost, it’s proven to save money.
Improved retention: mothers want flexibility from their employer, and if they don’t get it, they may look elsewhere. This is an uncomfortable truth that any hospital, trust or recruiter must face up to.
Improved attraction: not only do employers retain working mothers by offering flexibility, but they also become more attractive to new employees. Increasingly, organisations that aren’t flexible are seen as archaic and out of touch.

How flexible is the NHS in reality?

While everyone has the right to request flexible working, and there are clear benefits to both employers and employees, the reality is far more complex.

If we look at the nursing workforce, for example, The Royal College of Nursing says England is currently short of approximately 20,000 nursing staff. As a result, every NHS Trust in the UK is desperate to find ways to attract and retain more nurses. Offering flexibility is of course one such method.

However, overwhelmed hospitals are dealing with frontline shortages that are threatening to endanger patient safety. So if and when flexible working requests are made, accepting them isn’t straightforward. It’s a bit of a catch-22 situation.

Various regional trusts have worked hard to broaden the ways in which flexibility is possible. Team-based flexible rostering can offer working mothers the freedom they need, and some organisations are able to offer term-time working arrangements. But ultimately, mothers aren’t guaranteed the flexibility they need.

In most cases, for real flexibility, working through an agency is seen as a safer bet.

Flexibility through agencies – a mutually beneficial arrangement

In a whitepaper published by HCL in partnership with the Royal College of Nursing, it was discovered that agency nurses’ principal motivation for working through an agency was flexibility. This affirms what is often suspected: that mums in healthcare who want complete flexibility find work through agencies. It gives them the control and the freedom to work when and how they want to. And although this particular study focuses on nurses, it’s clear from our experience as a company that evaluates and one of the UK’s leading healthcare recruitment agencies that the findings would be similar for all female healthcare workers. They choose agencies to balance busy lives.

Meanwhile, the evidence of the importance of agency staff to the NHS is abundant: the huge annual increases in agency spend are for good reason. Frontline and emergency shortages require flexibility – the very flexibility agencies offer the NHS, and the candidates they attract. And that’s the key to this issue – flexibility is required across the board.

With International Women’s Day upon us, there are a few things we ought to recognise. The NHS is an industry dominated by women, and those women deserve a work-life balance that allows them to sacrifice neither their career nor their family. Increasingly, they choose agencies to get that balance. And with crippling shortages showing no sign of lessening, the NHS must work hard to ensure that these valuable and vital workers are supported and fulfilled.

If you work in healthcare and are struggling to balance family and work, get in touch. We’re renowned for not only helping working mothers to build the careers they want without compromise, but for protecting the rights and reputation of agency workers.

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