Older Nurses are Increasingly Overwhelmed by Family Care Responsibilities

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NHS Nursing Profile: An Ageing Population under Pressure

Stress has become a ubiquitous part of modern life. Creeping long hours culture affects many industries and healthcare is particularly affected. Major reductions in NHS Trust budgets have led to a downturn in number of nurses in the NHS, and this is contributing to increased stress levels among the nursing profession, with many feeling overworked and unable to deliver the level of care they would prefer. According to a survey conducted by the Royal College of Nursing, issues surrounding workplace stress and increased workloads have caused two thirds of NHS nurses to consider quitting their profession in 2013/2014.

As well as an increasingly stressed working population, NHS nurses are also an increasingly older workforce. As of 2013, compared to 2005, the NHS nursing workforce saw a reduction in nurses aged 25-34 & 35-44, with increases in the proportion of nurses aged 45-54, and 55-64. Nurses aged 45 and up made up 45% of the total workforce, with the most common age range being 45 to 54 years old.

NHS England registered nurse headcount, 2005 versus 2013

graph of nurse numbers

Older Nurses are Often Carers

According to research in Canada and Australia, one of the most commonly cited pain points for older nurses is the additional stress placed upon them by their care expertise outside of their work commitments.  

A fifth of carers are aged 50-64, and nurses are just as likely as any to be affected by the need to care for an ailing loved one. Older nurses often face additional pressures from friends and family who have concerns around their own health and wellbeing, and can find themselves caring for spouses & grandchildren in addition to performing care duties at work; with the average age of carers mirroring those they care for, as nurses get older the chances that they will be performing care duties at home increases.

Current status of older nurses in the NHS

A study conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that:

Overall, stakeholders in the nursing workforce, including senior NHS and nursing managers, human resources personnel, retirement organisations and trade unions, admit to a poor translation of government policy into practice in relation to older nurses in the NHS…. family caring responsibilities mean that some nurses would like to have less heavy duties or to reduce hours of work, but they report limited flexibility by employers in this regard.

The report found that flexible, “family friendly” hours tend to be offered to younger nurses rather than older nurses.

Recommendations for NHS management

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation study makes a number of recommendations for hiring managers and HR professionals working within the NHS:

  • Nurses over 50 to be informed about employment, retirement and return to work options;
  • Nurses over 50 to be offered flexible employment options
  • Sources of information to be improved, and to become more ‘personal’, accessible and comprehensible
  • Return to practice programmes to address the unique needs of older nurses;
  • ‘Family-friendly’ policies to become more evident to nurses, and not just to be limited to nurses with young children.

Changes to policy to benefit older nurses have potential to not only improve their wellbeing and work balance, also help to retain a core of more experienced nurses in the NHS. Older nurses provide vital support in mentoring, and in providing supervision and coordination for care teams and patients. By taking steps to help them in their personal lives by offering greater flexibility, the NHS as a whole can continue to benefit from this experience.

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