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Employment

NHS should explore four-day work week to ease staffing crisis, says top doctor

If the NHS “doesn’t embrace a four-day working week, the labour shortages will become even worse”, warns Professor John Ashton.

Chronic high workload is pushing many NHS employees to reduce their hours or quit. Image: Flickr / Nenad Stojkovic

The NHS should adopt a four-day working week to help deal with its staffing crisis, one of Britain’s top doctors has said.

Professor John Ashton says the model could help to address the burnout that is seeing health service staff quit or retire early.

“I think the four-day week will come over the next 10 years, and if the NHS doesn’t embrace it, the labour shortages will become even worse,” he told The Big Issue.

Image: Professor John Ashton

Ashton believes that a four-day week – without loss of pay – could “reduce sickness absence, improve morale which would improve the quality of what people are doing when they are working.”

“The NHS is a labour intensive, skill intensive organisation, which has 1.2 million employees but is 100,000 short. Then the million dollar question is; by being more flexible, can this make a difference?” he continued.  

The former president of the UK Faculty of Public Health has long been an advocate for bringing the standard working week down from five to four days, saying that it would help to address mental ill-health associated with overwork and burnout, and lead to greater job satisfaction and higher productivity.  

Over 27,000 NHS staff voluntarily resigned from July to September last year, as reported in the i, the most since data collection began in 2011. Staff have warned that burnout, Covid trauma and increasingly unsustainable workloads are overwhelming the workforce. 

“Doctors are cutting their hours or making plans to leave the health service altogether due to punishing workloads, stress, exhaustion, punitive pensions’ taxation rules, and, sadly, verbal and physical abuse,” said David Wrigley, BMA deputy council chair of the British Medical Association. 

Addressing NHS staff shortages was found to be the single most important thing the government must do to address the record 5.8 million patient backlog, said MPs in a recent report. 

The campaign for a national four-day working week has grown in momentum since the pandemic forced a shift to more flexible working. A six-month pilot programme has now launched in the UK, headed up by 4 Day Week Global. 

Businesses, too, are becoming increasingly interested in the potential benefits of giving employees an extra day off, with the British arm of camera company Canon becoming the latest business to trial a four-day working week without a pay cut. 

“The NHS needs to recognize that this is a trend that is underway and commit themselves to working through the implications of that and how they might be able to put in place more flexible options over the next five to 10 years,” explained Ashton.

“What needs to happen is (the NHS needs) to explore a four-day week and pilot it in some parts of the country.” 

Labour included plans for a 32-hour working week in their 2019 General Election manifesto. It was criticised by Conservatives who said it would “cripple the NHS”.

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