Five Reasons Why Upskilling Older NHS Staff is a Great Idea Right Now

By Lisa Maclean, Director of Education, NHS Professionals

 

Not many people like talking about age or ageing, but it’s a fact that we’re living and working longer. Against a background of technological change, skill and labour shortages and tighter immigration policies, it’s argued that organisations will need to improve how they attract, manage and develop people as they age[1]. It’s an issue the NHS, as the UK’s biggest employer, can’t afford to ignore.

Before we go any further, let’s define ‘older’ and look at some numbers. ‘Older’ is a word not everyone will feel comfortable with but it’s commonly used by experts to describe workers aged 50 and over. Official data show there are just over 10 million older workers in the UK – that’s a third of the total workforce. This rises to 36% of staff in health and social care, which is the fifth highest group of older workers across 21 major industries in the UK. (Agriculture, forestry and fishing is top with 52%, while accommodation and food services is bottom with 20.5%).[2]

So in statistical and real terms, older workers are a major player in any workforce and they will make a big difference to its overall output. Utilised to their full potential, they represent a key opportunity to strengthen the system overall.

Many education and training leaders in the NHS will be clear on this and invest in the future of their 50+ workforce. But, as we’ll see, conscious and unconscious bias towards older workers can exist. For good measure, therefore, let’s pinpoint some of the key benefits older staff bring to the NHS and why continuing to invest in their skills and career paths is a sound move.

 

  1. The NHS is under pressure and needs more people and skills

With 1.5 million employees, the NHS is the UK’s biggest employer and fifth largest globally (just behind McDonald’s and Walmart). But despite its size, and headcount increases in some staff groups, many argue it does not have enough people to meet demand[3]. While some shortfalls are ably filled by temporary Bank workers, there is concern over growing skills gaps and burnout rates as permanent staff absorb higher workloads[4].

Consequently, retention and staff engagement are now key priorities and offering quality education and training opportunities for staff can be a great way to support these. Older staff are a prime target for such opportunities because some may be keen to diversify after years in the same role. Some may also feel overlooked due to bias (see below) and may therefore embrace positive opportunities to broaden their skills. The result is a triple win for the individual, system and patients.

 

  1. Experienced older workers make organisations more productive

With age comes more knowledge and more experience, and these can be huge assets to any organisation looking to maximise performance. Recent analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows that organisations with a 10% higher share of workers aged 50+ are 1.1% more productive. These gains come from the lower job turnover and work experience of older workers[5].

At a time when the NHS needs to deliver more with less, productivity of all staff is vital and so having pro-age health, well-being and careers policies makes good sense.

 

  1. Upskilled older workers working flexibly can strengthen an integrated health and care system

Evidence shows that older workers value flexibility more than younger colleagues. They are more likely to want to work fewer hours because of caring responsibilities, health issues or lifestyle choice[6]. In this respect, upskilling older staff working reduced hours flexibly may seem counter-intuitive to some, on value for money/return on investment grounds.

However, investing in the careers and skills of the 50+ workforce has two distinct advantages: it can improve overall performance and retention rates by increasing staff engagement and helping to offset pressures caused by workforce and skills gaps; and it can widen the overall pool of people and skills available to a Trust, or Trusts, which creates the opportunity to share talent around the system and enable integrated care for all.

 

  1. Creating a positive education and training offer for older workers is equitable and inclusive

As we know, age is one of nine protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010. There are also compelling ethical and moral reasons why older staff should be actively included in all workplace learning opportunities.

Despite this, research has found that age is the least scrutinised and most widely accepted form of discrimination in the UK and there is evidence many older workers feel overlooked when it comes to career progression opportunities[7].

Staff aged 50+ are also less likely to take part in off-the-job education and training. Off-the-job opportunities differ from compliance-based on-the-job training because they demonstrate a more significant commitment to individuals[8]. Some argue the lack of 50+ participation is evidence of systemic bias towards older staff and has led the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) to state: “Employers, and particularly managers who are most likely to make decisions that influence training participation, should guard against assumptions that older workers are less likely to be interested in training or career progression.”[9]

More positively, an age-inclusive approach can make an organisation more effective due to the power of knowledge-sharing. Some 70% of employers in England stated in a YouGov study that older workers can help in knowledge and skill sharing[10]. Upskilling them enables this process and increases an organisation’s overall effectiveness. As a recent guide to good recruitment for older workers says: “Far from being in competition with each another, different age groups working together can help businesses thrive and individuals learn.”[11]

 

  1. Technology is changing the way we work and all staff will need the confidence and skills to thrive in the digital age

Technology, including digital and artificial intelligence, is now a major part of our lives and its power and reach are increasing all the time. Some parts of the NHS, such as back office and patient administration, have been slow to catch the tech wave – but this is changing as more and more Trusts switch to electronic patient record systems and look to maximise efficiencies across the system.

While this won’t mean NHS staff have to become tech wizards, it will mean change and trigger different ways of working for staff at all levels and ages. This may increase the need for professional development skills such as time and project management, critical thinking, problem solving, confidence and team leadership.

As the CIPD says: “The impact of technology on jobs will increasingly mean workers will need to upskill or reskill at different stages in their career. This demand will be compounded by more people working into their late 60s and early 70s.”[12]

 

Never stop learning

The industrialist Henry Ford said: “Anyone who stops learning is old…Anyone who keeps on learning not only remains young but becomes constantly more valuable.”

If Mr Ford is right, then continued positive investment in the skills and careers of the older workforce can only be a good thing for the NHS. It can engage and empower individuals to continue growing and remain at the top of their game. In so doing, they become even more ‘valuable’ to the NHS overall. The result is stronger people, stronger systems and even higher standards of care.

  • Are you an education and training leader working in a Trust or Integrated Care System (ICS)? Are you looking to upskill your workforce, including staff aged 50+? NHS Professionals now runs an expert-led education and training Academy offering a wide range of evidence-based courses to groups of clinical and non-clinical Trust/ICS staff. Group courses include:
    • Clinical skills training
    • Patient safety
    • OSCE preparation training
    • Healthcare Support Worker Development
    • Integrated care
    • Project management
    • Team leadership
    • Personal development including critical thinking; decision-making; developing confidence; communication and influencing skills; essential writing skills; and giving and receiving feedback
  • Visit nhsprofessionals.nhs.uk/en/partners/academy-courses for more information
  • To contact the Academy team direct with your group training requirements visit: nhsprofessionals.nhs.uk/forms/academy-contact-request.html

 

[1] Understanding older workers: Analysis and recommendations to support longer and more fulfilling working lives (cipd.co.uk). Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, March 2022.

[2] Understanding older workers: Analysis and recommendations to support longer and more fulfilling working lives (cipd.co.uk). Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, March 2022.

[3] The NHS workforce in numbers | The Nuffield Trust. October 2022.

[4]  House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee (2021), Workforce burnout and resilience in the NHS and social care

[5] GROW-a-guide-for-employers.pdf (ageing-better.org.uk). Centre for Ageing Better, October 2021.

[6] Understanding older workers: Analysis and recommendations to support longer and more fulfilling working lives (cipd.co.uk). Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, March 2022.

[7] GROW-a-guide-for-employers.pdf (ageing-better.org.uk). Centre for Ageing Better, October 2021.

[8] Understanding older workers: Analysis and recommendations to support longer and more fulfilling working lives (cipd.co.uk). Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, March 2022.

[9]  Understanding older workers: Analysis and recommendations to support longer and more fulfilling working lives (cipd.co.uk). Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, March 2022.

[10] GROW-a-guide-for-employers.pdf (ageing-better.org.uk). Centre for Ageing Better, October 2021.

[11] GROW-a-guide-for-employers.pdf (ageing-better.org.uk), Centre for Ageing Better/Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development/Recruitment and Employment Confederation, October 2021

[12] Understanding older workers: Analysis and recommendations to support longer and more fulfilling working lives (cipd.co.uk). Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, March 2022.