Flexible working, it’s time for a culture shift

By Alice Sorby, Employments Relations Advisor on 29 September 2021 Flexible Working Maternity Services

RCM members have probably seen me all over the place recently, like a broken record talking about flexible working. This is partly because on 13 September the NHS terms and conditions of service handbook Section 33, which covers flexible working was updated for England and Wales, and we have lots of work to do! We expect the handbook changes to follow in Northern Ireland, and in Scotland they will be introduced in line with the ‘Once for Scotland’ Workforce Policies Programme.

Very quickly the handbook changes provide for:

  • a contractual right to request flexible working from day one of employment with no limit on the number of requests there is also the right to make a flexible working request regardless of the reason;
  • new requirements for centralised oversight of processes to ensure greater consistency of access to flexible working including an escalation stage for circumstances where a line manager is not initially able to agree a request;
  • expectation that employers will promote flexibility options at the point of recruitment and through regular staff engagement through one-to-ones, health and wellbeing conversations, appraisals and team discussions.

I don’t think the technical changes themselves are the most important thing in all this. The idea behind those changes is to support a wider aim of a cultural shift in the NHS to ensure flexible working is available for all staff.

The benefits for staff I suppose are the most obvious – a better work life balance! There are lots of reasons why someone might want to work flexibly. The most recent survey of RCM members about their experience at work showed that only 35 per cent of respondents did not have some form of caring responsibility. This may be for children, older adults or a sick or disabled relative or you may want to reduce your hours as you approach retirement.

For this to work we need managers to see the benefits as well. Nationally, policy makers do – hence this big policy push - but that can take time to translate to workplaces. The RCM is involved in NHS Staff Council work to produce guidance for staff and line managers. We know that this isn’t simple for line managers and they need proper resources, support and training. You can’t be expected to magically know how to make this work in a busy maternity unit. There needs to be guidance on using e-rostering for flexible working, so that the system helps rather than hinders you.

There is currently a shortage of 2,000 midwives in England alone and the Government itself accepts that figure. I don’t need to tell you that staff shortages and the increasingly complex care that women need means that units are struggling and there are high levels of stress. At a time when we should be doing all we can to retain the staff we have, but because of all these pressures we know staff are leaving – it’s a vicious cycle. Flexible working could provide a solution, with the same all member survey finding that two-thirds of midwives and MSWs who had left or were considering leaving the NHS could be encouraged to return if there were greater opportunities to work flexibly.

Self and team rostering can be a good way of helping teams to decide how to organise their working time. It can give teams the autonomy to develop working patterns that recognise the importance of work-life balance and health and wellbeing. Research also shows that high levels of occupational autonomy can support emotional wellbeing too. We encourage members to speak with your branches, catch up on our webinar and find a way of working that works best for you.

We can help you approach flexible working with the updated RCM flexible working guidance, a practical guide to find out how to apply but also how it can work in maternity services.