Published: 11/11/2004, Volume II4, No. 5931 Page 32 33

Recruitment and retention policies are too often focused on the young. Donald Hiscock asks what can be done to target the over-50s

For many people in their 50s, joining the NHS has proved to be an attractive career move. Now the Department of Health is setting out to attract even more older employees with the launch of a website called Experience Matters. The recruitment drive offers jobs that fit around people's lives and the promise of career development.

The reality facing the NHS is that one in five nurses are aged 50 or over and eligible for early retirement at 55, while one in four GPs in some areas are due to retire in the next five to 10 years. Allied health professions are also facing shortages: one in five workers are aged between 45 and 54.

This new recruitment push follows a report, Great to be Grey, published by the King's Fund two years ago. It pointed out that experienced and skilled older NHS workers are retiring early in ever-increasing numbers due to heavy workloads, long hours and low morale.

But the report's author, Sandra Meadows, said recently that there was still some way to go before working conditions for older employees were settled. The DoH initiative is welcome, but there is more to be done .

For Ms Meadows the key issue is flexibility. 'If flexible hours are being offered, then why are so many people over 50 still leaving the NHS?' she asks.

'I have been tracking employment trends and the data is not showing a great change in the turnover of older staff. The NHS is recruiting the over-50s but many are also still leaving.'

Focus group findings have indicated that part-time working is a big issue.Managers have admitted that arranging parttime hours has proved difficult, especially for those who want to reduce their workload as they approach retirement.

'Some professions have a rigid career structure and It is not easy to step off the ladder.Attempting to work part-time has an impact on pensions and on a person's status. For these staff there really is no flexibility, ' says Ms Meadows.

Staff shortages, especially in clinical environments, puts pressure on employees and leads to early retirement. In many clinical occupations, staff get out as soon as they can.

According to Ms Meadows' research, older workers in the NHS feel a lack of support and that there are few opportunities for training and development.

For her, the recruitment campaign will only succeed if the NHS learns from other organisations in recruiting and retaining older staff.

This view is echoed by Unison: 'It is good to focus on recruitment but a lot needs to be done to ensure that the existing workforce is cared for, ' says a union spokesperson.

Andrea Redin, a ward sister at York Hospitals trust, feels there is some truth in the idea that older staff burn out owing to job pressures. In her area, workers over 50 can find the pace hard, especially with the rotating shifts.

However, she welcomes having older staff on her ward. 'They are very reliable, ' she says. 'They have a different work ethos to some 18-year-olds. They get on well with the patients and have a lot of experience of life.'

Tina Hardy is 53 and works for Ms Redin as a ward housekeeper.

Having been employed in the NHS in the past, she always had a yearning to return.When she saw the job advertised she knew it would be right for her. 'I love working with people and being independent, ' she says.

'People of my age have more commitment to the job; we have fewer family ties. It means that I find it more fulfilling and It is a pleasure coming to work.'

Ms Hardy feels people in her position can do a lot to address some of the issues raised in the Great to be Grey report. She believes she can help to reduce the pressures on nursing staff.

'I can do all the non-medical jobs on the ward, leaving the nurses to get on with their work, ' she says. 'By being a helping hand, it frees up clinical staff so that they can give 100 per cent.'

Others attracted to the NHS in their 50s are quick to point out that they have had plenty of opportunities for training and development.

Patrick Harper is 51 and a trainee medical physics technician at the University Hospitals of Leicester trust.

'It is not anything like my old job in engineering. There is a different way of working. Staff here talk about people all the time. I like the training I've received as it is very practical and I feel like I am part of a professional team, ' he says.

'It is good to recruit older staff like Patrick, ' adds his boss, chief technician Sue Wilson.

'We provide a diagnostic service for the hospitals so we need people with life experience for the job.'

For Grania Fine, it was the experience she gained doing voluntary work for her children's schools after she had left nursing that helped her secure a management position over the age of 50.

She completed a return-topractice course two years ago, worked in elderly care for a year and has recently been promoted to the post of return to practice manager for Southampton primary care trust.

'A person who comes into the NHS with people skills makes them a hugely valuable asset, ' she says. 'Everything You have done over the years contributes to your attractiveness to an employer.

Being aged 50 is not the issue, It is what you bring to the job. For me, I just think of it as starting out on career part two.'

The DoH website Experience Matters contains many case studies that reinforce the message that being over 50 is a bonus if you want a career in the NHS.

Some are joining even when it means a big drop in salary.

Peter Jemmett, 52, is a communications manager with East Kent NHS communications team.He says: 'I do not have any regrets about taking home half the money I did in the past.'

He worked for a mobile telephone company but felt the pressures of the job were becoming too great. 'I do not think working in the private sector gives me the same kind of job satisfaction that I get now, ' he says. 'I am working in an area where I am giving something back to the community.'

Ms Meadows agrees that people over 50 have a lot to give the NHS but she says those behind this new recruitment campaign must not lose sight of the fact that existing NHS workers feel overwhelmed by government directives and having to work with scarce resources.

Staff are over-worked, disillusioned and physically exhausted. 'It is all very well spending on recruitment, but retention needs to be addressed as well.'

Further information Web links for NHS careers and Great to Be Grey, www. nhscareers. nhs. uk www. kingsfund. org. uk/pdf/Great_to_be_Grey_sum mary. pdf