New NHS flexible working rights to improve work-life balance and retain staff 

Agreement will open up new options and make requests easier

An agreement on ​​new flexible working rights aimed at giving NHS staff a better work-life balance is announced today (Tuesday) by health unions and NHS employers.

The deal will make it easier for workers to request flexible working arrangements including a right to do so from ​the first day ​staff are employed in the NHS.

It is expected to help the NHS recruit and retain health workers. The agreement comes at a time when many health employers and ​their staff are beginning to consider new ways of working. ​The government has ​already promised a consultation on work flexibility for all UK workplaces.

Poor work-life balance is often given as a key reason for employees wanting to leave the health service. The extra demands of the pandemic have left staff exhausted with many re-evaluating their priorities and considering leaving the NHS.

To tackle this, health unions and NHS employers have agreed ​several new flexible measures to encourage staff to continue their careers in health. The provisions will apply in England, Scotland and Wales, with similar measures expected to follow in Northern Ireland.

New contractual terms will allow staff to:

  • Request flexible working from the start of their employment (removing the requirement to have six months’ service)
  • Make an unlimited number of applications for flexible working, instead of just one a year
  • Submit applications without having to justify requests or provide specific reasons
  • ​Access a process ​where managers must refer ​on requests that cannot be accommodated initially to ensure all possible solutions are explored.

Employers will be expected to promote flexibility options for all jobs at the recruitment stage​ and discuss them regularly with all staff in one-to-one meetings, team discussions and appraisals.

Health employers will also work with unions to develop, agree and offer a broader range of flexible working arrangements. In addition, they will ​monitor and examine what happens to requests ​made across their organisations.

Chair of the health unions on the NHS staff council and UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “The pandemic has put so much strain on the lives of NHS workers that many are re-evaluating their priorities. Rigid shifts and long hours mean staff often miss out on valuable quality time with family or the chance to pursue outside interests.

“Some choose to take ​on agency or bank work because ​that allows them to control how ​they arrange their lives. But this also mean​s losing out on pay, job security, career opportunities and other benefits of being part of the ​NHS.

“Flexible working does happen in the NHS, but this new agreement will make it a more realistic option for staff in all roles. ​However, it will only be effective if chronic staff shortages issues are addressed ​too.”

Chair of the employers on the NHS staff council and director of workforce and organisational development at Manchester and Trafford Local Care Organisation, Jon Lenney said: “It’s fantastic to see the NHS leading the way in supporting flexibility in the workplace and becoming a modern employer of choice.

“The jointly agreed changes to contractual terms and conditions will enable employers to build on innovative flexible working practices that have been delivered during the Covid-19 pandemic. This will not only help attract new talent into the NHS but also support staff to stay in work at a time when retention of our valued workforce has never been more important.

“Employers will continue to work in partnership with unions to bring the ambitions of the NHS People Promise to life by cultivating cultures that promote and enable effective flexible working practices so that flexibility is a lived reality for all NHS staff.”

Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, which is part of the NHS Confederation, said: “Employers will welcome this agreement on contractual improvements on the right to flexible working that has been jointly agreed with unions via the NHS staff council.

“Our members understand that there is more work to do to make sure the NHS People Promise can be fully implemented, and to ensure that flexible working practices are available to all NHS staff.

“Forthcoming guidance will support line managers to enable all staff to make use of effective flexible working practices. This is a key plank of the focus in the People Plan on improving our workplaces across the NHS.”

Prerana Issar, chief people officer at NHS England and Improvement said: “Our staff have had a year like no other and the NHS has been there to support them too – from a mental health hotline and text service, direct support at work through mental health and wellbeing hubs, as well as flexible working options so that where possible, colleagues can work shifts that suit their busy lives.

“We’re delighted to be working alongside the NHS staff council to further embed flexible working for our staff that will not only benefit our existing colleagues, but will also be vital in helping us to attract more people and grow our workforce in even more diverse, inclusive ways.”

Notes to editors: 
– The new rights will be effective from 13 September ​2021. Employers and unions are working to revise and update existing local policies and work on the changes needed.
– The NHS staff council is responsible for the NHS pay, terms and conditions system known as Agenda for Change. It is made up of NHS employers and nationally recognised unions, with government health departments also represented. The 13 recognised unions for staff covered by Agenda for Change are the British Association of Occupational Therapists, British Dietetic Association, British and Irish Orthoptic Society, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, College of Podiatry, Federation of Clinical Scientists, GMB, Prison Officers Association, Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Nursing, Society of Radiographers, UNISON and Unite.
– A joint statement on behalf of the staff council is here.
– The agreement delivers on the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) campaign Flex From 1st for a day-one right to flexible working.

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