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Flexible working for doctors is fast becoming a necessary to to stay working in healthcare.

I was totally inspired to learn about the work of www.Patchworkhealth (a team of doctors and healthcare professionals) who are pushing the cause of flexible working in the NHS to be made the norm. Their goal is to empower clinicians to work flexibly and to support employers to manage safe staffing how they choose. The motive behind it is to give NHS professionals back the time, breathing space and work-life balance they need – more critical now than ever before.

The powerful argument they make for it suggests that that it could provide the much needed buffer against burnout – currently being experienced by an astonishing one in three UK doctors.

There is wide recognition by HR that burnout levels are closely associated with staff turnover and absenteeism, and there is clear evidence to prove that tackling burnout is essential to maintaining high standards of patient care and safety in the health sector.

The suggestion to tackle burnout is that the whole approach to working shifts should be turned on its head. Instead of trying to accommodate their lives around set rotas, workers should be given professional autonomy, respect and trust from their employer. They should be offered greater flexibility allowing them to develop their skill set and to build a portfolio career in a more individual way. It is predicted that this would be a far more appealing route to recruit further staff into healthcare roles and fill the much-needed gaps in most NHS rotas whilst also assisting with attrition rates.

Currently, the NHS is forced to use expensive recruitment agencies to fill the vacant shifts but this cannot be used as a long-term solution as it is costing the NHS billions which could be better spent on improving services and care for patients.

Based on much of their research, Patchwork Health claim that doctors who diversify in their career experiences are more likely to drive innovation in their workplaces and improve outcomes rather than compromising patient care in any way. Their argument is that junior doctors should not have to rely on the say-so or commitment of their consultants for teaching and training experiences or be forced to fit in to the wider team requirements in order to attend events that benefit their career ie. conferences, exams and training days.

And at the very least, after the most intense year any key workers have experienced due to the pandemic, they absolutely should not be forced to use annual leave to access much-needed mental health support.

This concept of a more sustainable and successful way of working is founded on the principle of employee empowerment. Rather than having a rota system imposed on clinicians, it suggests the idea of creating schedules which are instead owned and managed by the clinicians themselves. This could happen through building technology that is user-friendly and easily accessible to all staff.

Of course, getting buy-in from all concerned is the challenge! And that includes everyone from senior leadership, HR managers, other clinicians & health care workers and administration teams. Such a goal demands that all involved are on board for this change. But as with any major culture shift, this could be difficult to implement and with no doubt, a fair bit of resistance as changing attitudes of others is a long-term goal and unlikely to happen overnight.

Nevertheless, the last year has been encouraging insofar as hospitals and trusts have been forced to strip back the red tape that has allowed skilled doctors to work across location boundaries during periods of intense demand. Witnessing the impact of this in alleviating pressure has led to the belief that this should be embedded permanently as the new normal way of working to allow for multi-organisational staff scheduling.

And providing healthcare workers with digital passports which would store details of their qualifications and training can eliminate the admin burden which prevents GP surgeries and hospitals from effectively sharing relevant data for staffing capacity.

If Covid19 has taught the healthcare world anything, it has proved that the NHS must build in a more prepared, adaptable and resilient system which can not only adapt to patient demands but also becomes a more appealing employer for the next generation of healthcare workers.