As we head into our next decade, we are excited to see the effects of the new NHS ‘Head of Flexible Working’ appointment, recently announced as 2019 came to a close. The new role will aim to respond to the rising tide of staff leaving the profession in search of better work-life balance. The new flexible working lead – Jane Galloway, who joins from the NHS London Leadership Academy – has a tough but critically important job on her hands.

Some news reports of this crucial appointment however rather flippantly claimed that millennial medics who aren’t prepared to match the work ethic of their predecessors are the reason such flexible policies must now be driven forward. But this is a simplistic response to a complex problem that has been years in the making.

Flexible working isn’t sought after by a group of work-shy junior doctors who fancy the luxury of a four-day working week. It’s desperately needed by healthcare workers of all ranks who are exhausted to the point of burn out. For many of them, flexible working would be a way to maintain the careers they love whilst staying physically and mentally healthy; and undoubtedly improving the patient experience.

We all know that our NHS staff are coping with unprecedented levels of demand against a backdrop of squeezed budgets and creaking infrastructure. In such circumstances and despite the best efforts of many NHS Trusts, it’s no wonder that the number of staff leaving the profession for good has tripled in recent years. Nor that the number of junior doctors taking a temporary or permanent break from full-time practice after their F2 year has tipped over the 50% mark for the first time. Tough hours, unrelenting demand, and gaps in the rota combine to create conditions that can push the most dedicated of clinicians to the brink.

That’s why we mustn’t dismiss the new seriousness with which flexible working is rightfully being taken by the NHS. This appointment isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to ‘snowflake’ demands, but a crucial step in the mission to tackle the NHS staffing crisis.

We must applaud the NHS for making this appointment, thereby validating and elevating calls for a more flexible approach to work. As the working world around us has evolved, the NHS has been surviving on practices rapidly approaching their sell-by date. This has thus far pushed clinicians into a binary choice of full-time contract versus locum work: the former often bad for the health of individuals; the latter a strain on NHS finances. As the impact of these realities has become increasingly acute, so too have calls for a fresh way of thinking.

As we look to a new decade, we must acknowledge that time is running out to reverse the current trends in staff retention. As the new Head of Flexible Working takes up this much-needed role, Trusts, managers and clinicians must work together and ensure their first-hand understanding of the situation is acknowledged. We must all collaborate and work in partnership to implement meaningful, innovative solutions to this crisis; putting an end, once and for all, to those leaving our NHS for good. Here’s to transforming flexible working.

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