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Why on earth does the NHS let experienced nurses walk away?


There is much more HR teams and nurse managers can do to harness the skills of nurses now reaching retirement – letting them go is a scandal, argues Marilyn Eveleigh

Another nursing colleague has retired this week, after years as an NHS community trust Band 7 respiratory specialist. Natalie managed a multidisciplinary team, developing the COPD service and its reputation, growing and retaining the staff and grooming her successor. Like many nurses, she delayed her retirement but now wants a change of pace and responsibility while she enjoys her well-deserved pension. She informed her managers of her decision a year ago, confirming she would eagerly take on any short- or long-term roles that used her skills once she retired. 

Natalie certainly has skills. She is a specialist clinician, a trainer, a successful and proven team leader with people and budgeting aptitude, and experience working in the community setting.  As a nurse and midwife, she has worked within the NHS, outside it as a GP practice nurse and as a pharma company trainer, and has also developed healthcare services in rural Africa. She is brave, resourceful, experienced, flexible, and inspirational.

Yet the NHS let her walk away without a murmur, even though it is currently short of 47,000 registered nurses – an increase of 20% in just three months. Like all NHS trusts, her employer has unfilled nurse vacancies exacerbating workforce pressures. This nurse doesn’t need recruiting, she was already employed and well known to the trust. Unbelievably, no one from HR or any nurse manager approached her to discuss retaining her skills, despite knowing she has the desire and energy to continue working. She was given an exit comments form to complete, and the chief nurse sent an email wishing her ‘good luck’. 

It is shameful: healthcare is losing another valuable asset. The NHS is so desperate for nurses we are recruiting from overseas, often breaching the WHO’s ethical recruitment agreement, but I’m seriously alarmed we do not make equally robust efforts to retain our existing home-grown nurses like Natalie. With her exemplary employment record, transferable skills and clinical expertise, was there genuinely no role to offer her, considering the approaching winter pressures, waiting lists and autumn Covid vaccination programme? Certainly, she is bewildered when feedback indicates she is a skilled, dedicated nurse respected by management, colleagues, GPs and patients. 

I know Natalie is actually disappointed not to have been asked to remain in some capacity: she thought her employer valued her more. Moreover, the HR department’s messages claim it wants to retain staff by offering flexible new ways of working, as required by the national NHS workforce retention plan. But there has been no such conversation. The NHS, specifically chief nurses and HR managers, must do better.

Natalie is not the only nurse who has experienced the discord between this approach and the growing workforce crisis threatening the NHS. I bet you know a Natalie. As practice nurses, many of us will recognise the apparently uncaring and inflexible NHS attitude that made us feel we were a commodity and led us to choose practice nursing. Sadly, the NHS has allowed another experienced nurse to leave, taking much-needed skills with her. What a scandalous waste.

Marilyn Eveleigh, nurse adviser and independent trainer in East Sussex