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Nursing numbers rise but concerns raised about ‘premature leavers’

The number of nurses working in the UK has risen to the highest level on record, according to new figures.

There are now 788,638 nurses, midwives and nursing associates registered to work in the UK, according to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

Despite the rise, the nursing regulator issued a stark warning about the number of leaving the profession prematurely.

The NMC pointed to “worrying findings” from its leavers’ survey which indicated that many decided to leave the profession due to burnout or exhaustion, concerns about the quality of people’s care, workload or staffing levels.

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Just over half (52%) of leavers told the NMC they stopped work “earlier than planned” in 2022.

One nurse, who left the register in her thirties, told the NMC: “Instead of leaving work feeling I had helped someone, I was leaving work worried that someone was left gravely ill as the department was severely overcrowded.”

Another in her early sixties added: “I retired earlier than I might have done due to the pressures of the job.

“Lack of staff, high caseloads, increasing demands on staff without improved resources all leading to high stress levels.”

Each year the NMC releases its annual figures on the number of nurses, midwives and nursing associates registered to work in the UK.

The 2022/23 figure represents a rise of more than 30,000 from 2021/22, it said.

This means that an estimated 1.2% of the population are now registered to work as a nurse or midwife, the regulator said.

Of these, 731,058 are registered nurses, 41,716 are midwives and 9,339 are nursing associates who can practise in England.

There were were a record 52,148 new joiners last year, according to the NMC’s latest report, and almost half of these people have trained overseas.

The NMC said that professionals educated around the world now account for one in five nurses, midwives and nursing associates who can practise in the UK.

Meanwhile the NMC report also highlights different demographics of nurses in the UK, including:

– A total of 28% of nurses on the register are from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

– The number of nurses aged 56 and above, which includes professionals at NHS retirement age, increased to 167,002 last year.

– There were almost 87,000 men on the register, representing almost 11% of all nurses, midwives and nursing associates.

– A figure of 6,734 (0.85% of those on the register) said their gender is not the same as it was at the time of birth, up from 5,907 in March 2022, the NMC said.

Andrea Sutcliffe, chief executive and registrar at the NMC, said: “At a time of rising demand for health and care services, it’s welcome news that our register has grown to a record level, due to an increase in domestically educated joiners together with the ongoing surge in international recruitment.

“While recruitment remains strong, there are clear warnings about the workplace pressures driving people away from the professions – many are leaving the register earlier than planned because of burnout or exhaustion, lack of support from colleagues, concerns about the quality of people’s care, workload and staffing levels.

“Our insight can support nursing and midwifery leaders across health and social care to focus on the right issues in their retention strategies.

“Addressing those issues must be a collaborative effort aimed at improving staff wellbeing and retention, for the benefit of everyone using services.”

Commenting on the figures, Pat Cullen, chief executive and general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: “These figures bear out our concerns over the failure to retain experienced staff – thousands of nurses are leaving the profession early citing burnout, physical or mental health, and concerns about the quality of people’s care.

“With half of all new starters coming from overseas, it is clear the government’s failure to deliver a domestic workforce plan is hitting home. While internationally educated nursing staff are a vital and valued part of the NHS, the overreliance on staff from overseas, including those countries with shortages of their own, is not sustainable.

“When the workforce plan for England finally comes it must tackle these issues head on.”

Birte Harlev-Lam, from the Royal College of Midwives, said: “The increase in numbers on the register are not translating into more midwives in the NHS.

“Midwives may remain on the register for a time, but that doesn’t mean they’re working.

“We know they are really struggling, from burnout and from deep concerns about their ability to deliver safe and high-quality care in an underfunded, under-resourced health service.

“It’s not just in the NHS. There’s a growing crisis in midwifery education, which will have a significant impact on our ability to train new midwives. Recruiting internationally-trained midwives, while welcome, won’t plug the gaps sufficiently.

“We also know that they require additional support to adjust to practising in a new country.

“The pressure remains on the workforce to ensure that appropriate support is provided to promote a positive experience in the workplace and retention of staff.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Steve Barclay said: “It is extremely promising to see record numbers of nurses, midwives and nursing associates registered to practice in the UK, with numbers of homegrown UK-educated staff increasing, alongside talent from overseas.

“We’re on track to deliver 50,000 more nurses by next year, with almost 43,000 more working in the NHS compared to September 2019.

“Cutting waiting lists is one of the Government’s key five priorities and we are committed to ensuring we have the workforce in place to achieve that.

“We will shortly publish a long-term workforce plan to go even further, including projections for the number of doctors, nurses and other professionals we will need in five, 10 and 15 years’ time.”

– Some 26,618 nurses, midwives and nursing associates left the NMC permanent register between January 2022 and December 2022, of these 7,226 people responded to the NMC’s leavers’ survey.