Workforce planning is often described as more of an art than a science. Yet workforce planners are increasingly seeking out and deploying sophisticated scientific methods.

The primary aim of workforce planning in the NHS is to provide a better, more efficient and effective service for patients by trying to ensure that workforce supply meets workforce demand.

In recent years there has been an increasing emphasis on promoting evidence-based decision making through the use of a range of planning tools.

Perhaps the simplest yet most important type of tool is the database. For example, the NHS electronic staff record collects information using a database tool called the data warehouse.

The electronic staff record has ensured the availability and accessibility of good quality data and made a significant contribution to recent improvements in the efficiency of workforce planning. It highlights the fundamental advantage in the use of effective tools – they enable us to work smarter.

Planners also use supply and demand forecasting tools and models. Supply tools are based on the same fundamental equation: future supply = current supply + joiners – leavers, whereas there are several approaches to forecasting workforce demand. 

Activity data or information about the demand for a particular service and, by extension, for particular staff, is important for workforce demand forecasting.

The more sophisticated workforce planning tools developed and used by the NHS workforce review team can broadly be divided into two types: strategic and service.

Strategic and service planning

The strategic type can be further broken down to give a local, regional or national picture, each requiring a different tool. Any tool must be fit for purpose and focus on the question at hand. For example, a hospital rostering system, which is a good example of a service type tool, must be able to provide the answer to vital questions such as how many staff are available to run services on any particular day and thereby improve staff scheduling across the wards.

Similarly, a workforce supply model (a strategic type tool) needs to provide information such as how many staff in a given profession or care pathway will be available over a specified number of years, and show the impact of any reduction of trainees on that profession in the future.

In addition to these tool types, there are a number of others that are worthy of consideration in this context. For example, there are many types of framework tool which assist in the development of methodological and/or procedural changes or analyses within a service or organisation.

One of the most well known of these is the career framework for health, which enables workforce planners to ascertain the skills, knowledge and possible training required to perform different activities within the NHS. Benchmarking tools are another way in which organisations can determine how they are performing in relation to other similar organisations.

This knowledge enables planners to determine where improvements can be made and gives an indication of the degree of improvement that should be achieved. It also facilitates collaboration across organisations with regard to sharing good practice.


Another type of tool is the integration tool, which combines finance, service and workforce. It has been identified in the six-steps methodology and workforce planning courses throughout the NHS that integration of these three areas is paramount for workforce planning, particularly at local and regional levels.

Although there are currently fewer of this type of tool than the others mentioned above, it is growing in importance and use.

Perhaps the most important tool is communication. That is, the actual engagement and interaction between and among different parties. The success of any tool is dependent on effective communication between the tool provider or creator and the target user.

Insufficient communication will lead to a poorly designed tool and one that is not fit for purpose.

However, communication is important beyond the creation of tools; it is a tool in its own right. Engagement between workforce planners, service providers and patients must exist for useful workforce planning to take place; it cannot be viewed in isolation.

These “tools of the trade” used by workforce planners do not provide all the answers on their own but are inter-dependent in producing a full picture.

In any planning endeavour, it is important to explore the interaction of all the various components. The use of such tools in focusing and answering the relevant questions has led to an improved understanding of the challenges faced, and provided insight into addressing those challenges.

Slowly but surely these workforce planning tools are moving the NHS into a more evidenced based culture, which will ultimately be of benefit to patients, staff and taxpayers alike.