With nearly a fifth of Scotland’s nurses now over 55, it is clear we could have a problem in the not-too-distant future as they start to retire. As the Royal College of Nursing said, the health service is facing a “demographic time bomb” and the same could be said for the country as a whole.
The number of pensioners is expected to rise by 28 per cent between 2014 and 2039 with the over-75 population forecast to nearly double from 430,000 to 800,000 over the same period. That will mean more work for the NHS.
If health boards continue to struggle to recruit new staff and significant numbers start to retire, the NHS could find itself in considerable trouble. There is a danger of a vicious circle in which over-worked staff quit the profession, increasing the workload on the rest and tarnishing the image of the job for potential new recruits.
Fortunately, we have some time to do something about it.
Paying nurses more might help attract new staff, but in these austere times it seems unlikely that there will be sufficient funds to make a major difference to wages.
A better strategy might be to focus on improving working conditions and trying to retain experienced staff. Few people go into nursing to make money; many do so because they want to help cure the sick and heal the injured – basically to make a difference.
If they are constantly rushed off their feet and feel they are barely managing to do the job in the way it should be done, it is easy to see why this would damage morale.
The Scottish Government and NHS Scotland should consider ways of allowing staff to stay on after traditional retirement age, as the RCN suggests. They may not be able to continue with the more physically demanding aspects of the job, but the extra numbers – combined with their wealth of experience – could go a long way to sharing the workload, thereby improving conditions for all nurses.
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It is an approach that could be taken by many businesses outside the health sector. One of the benefits of the NHS is it has helped the general population stay healthier for longer so many people are perfectly capable of continuing to work into their late 60s and 70s. Some actively want to continue working; others might do so if there were changes to their conditions such as fewer hours.
The time bomb is ticking, but if we plan ahead we can defuse it.