Despite a record number of nurses and midwives joining the profession across the UK, the NMC said pressure on frontline nurses could drive many away.
In a survey of 5,639 nurses who left the register between July 2019 and June 2020, the NMC found that after retirement as the most common reason for leaving, almost a quarter of nurses, 23 per cent, said they left their jobs because of "too much pressure", leading to stress and poor mental health.
A total of 18 per cent blamed a negative workplace culture as the reason to leave.
The NMC report warned: “These issues existed before the pandemic, and may well outlast it, further disrupting an already fatigued nursing and midwifery workforce. If not addressed, this could have a significant impact on the number of people we report leaving our register over the next year and beyond.”
In an interview with The Independent earlier this year the NMC’s chief executive Andrea Sutcliffe highlighted what she said was a “blame culture” in the NHS that saw nurses being referred to the regulator without any local investigation first.
The NMC’s worrying findings come as the nurse who looked after Boris Johnson when he was seriously ill with Covid-19 resigned, citing the government's 1 per cent pay offer for nurses and its lack of respect for the profession.
Jenny McGee, who cared for the prime minister in intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital in central London, told a Channel 4 documentary: “I don’t know how much more I’ve got to give to the NHS. We’re not getting the respect and now pay that we deserve.”
The NMC’s report said there were now 732,000 nurses registered with it in the year to 31 March across the whole of the UK.
The regulator said there had been an increase in older nurses with a 6.2 per cent rise compared to the previous year. There are now more than 154,000 nurses and midwives over the age of 56 on the register – including almost 60,000 aged 61 to 70 and 3,380 aged over 71.
Its report said many of these nurses may have stayed on to help during the pandemic but it warned: “If they have delayed their decision to retire, we may see them leave our register, and therefore the workforce, when the pandemic is over."
The rate of growth in the register is slower than previous years and despite rises in the number of people applying to study nursing and midwifery at university, there has been a drop in the number of international nurses coming to work in the UK as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit. The NMC said nurses coming from Europe fell 24 per cent, including a three-month period at the start of the pandemic where numbers collapsed to almost zero.
Andrea Sutcliffe said: “There’s no doubt this has been a year unlike any other. It’s been difficult and, at times, traumatic for our incredible nursing and midwifery professionals, who’ve worked tirelessly to continue to care for people in the most challenging of circumstances.
“Given the impact of the pandemic, it’s great our register has continued to grow and, overall, today’s report paints a picture of cautious optimism.
“However, while our register shows welcome and much-needed positive UK growth overall, the pace of that growth has slowed. We've also seen the continued reliance on international recruitment, which makes us vulnerable to the impact of world events, as the early months of the pandemic showed.”
Pat Cullen, from the Royal College of Nursing, added: “This report confirms there is trouble on the horizon for people needing health and care services.
“Fewer nurses registered with the NMC this year than last. The register is growing nowhere near enough to meet patient demand. The situation will get worse when one fifth of the register retires in the next few years.
“This doesn’t include those nursing staff planning to leave due to high stress, poor pay and benefits and a negative workplace culture. This is clearly a major risk for the quality and safety of patient care, which is only set to increase in demand.”
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