Our eleventh survey of RCP members and fellows during the COVID-19 pandemic shows the radical change to working practices that physicians have experienced. It illustrates that many, especially trainees, want more flexibility in their working lives to continue after the pandemic, but workforce shortages present the key barrier to this shift.
- 43% of physicians had not reverted back to their original working pattern, almost 18 months on from the start of the pandemic. Well over half (57%) are now working from home at least some of the time, with over two thirds (67%) saying working from home has improved their work/life balance.
- The majority (56%) want this shift towards more remote and flexible working to become the norm, a sentiment even more pronounced among the trainee workforce. 56% of trainees would also be interested in working less than full time.
- Alongside greater flexibility, physicians have however found themselves performing far more tasks outside of their normal working hours compared to before the pandemic. For example, over two thirds (67%) now spend time outside their working hours on admin related to patient care compared to 54% before the pandemic.
- Staffing shortages are seen as the key block to the desire for more flexibility. Of those wanting to work more flexibly, over a third (36%) thought it would be difficult or impossible – 79% cited “not enough medical staff” as a barrier. This workforce challenge will be exacerbated by the fact that 27% of consultants say they expect to retire in the next three years, many within the next 18 months.
The impact of the pandemic on working practices
43% of doctors had not reverted back to their original working pattern from the start of the pandemic. Well over half (57%) are now working from home at least some of the time, with over two thirds (67%) saying working from home has improved their work/life balance.
Of those doctors who hadn’t reverted back to their original working pattern, 44% had seen their job plan formally changed. For those whose job plan hadn’t formally changed despite not reverting to their original working pattern, almost half (49%) were unsure whether their new working pattern would be formally agreed.
Almost two thirds (65%) reported that their organisation had made changes to enable more flexible working during the pandemic. 14% said their organisation hadn’t made such changes, while a fifth (21%) were unsure.
The most common changes were related to facilitating less face-to-face contact – online meetings (91%), remote IT access (86%) and remote working (85%) were the most common changes. Fewer than half (47%) of those organisations who made changes had introduced video outpatient clinics.
Reflecting the pressure physicians have been under during the pandemic, along with this greater flexibility they have found themselves performing far more tasks outside of their normal working hours compared to before the pandemic. Over two thirds (67%) now spend time outside their working hours on admin related to patient care compared to 54% before the pandemic. 11% work on outpatient clinics outside contracted hours compared to 4% pre-pandemic, while over a third (35%) spend time on clinical governance and clinical management outside their working hours, up from 26%.
Again highlighting the pressure the workforce has been under in this time of uncertainty, almost two thirds (64%) reported that they felt less in control of their professional life compared to before the pandemic.
Almost half (46%) reported they had SPA or protected time for non-clinical activities cancelled or reduced during the pandemic. For this group, over three quarters (79%) said they had not been consulted.
Desire for more flexibility to be embedded, especially among trainees
Physicians would like the shift towards more flexibility to become the norm, with the majority (56%) saying their experience of the pandemic has made them want to work more flexibly.
Over 60% want opportunities for remote IT access, online meetings and remote working to be available in the future. This desire for new ways of working was particularly pronounced among trainee respondents. 72% of trainees would like to make use of remote IT access in future, with around two thirds wanting more online meetings and remote working.
56% of trainees would also be interested in working less than full time (LTFT), reflecting a growing desire in the workforce where a fifth of doctors now work LTFT. Meeting this desire will improve morale in the workforce and make retention simpler.
Of those physicians who would like to work more flexibly, the vast majority (71%) would be willing to work compressed hours. NHS organisations should explore options for greater enabling of compressed hours working.
Staffing shortages hitting potential for more flexible working
A third (35%) of physicians who would like to work more flexibly think this will be easy to do. A similar proportion (36%) however say it would be difficult or impossible. A lack of workforce is the key challenge stymieing more flexible working patterns, with 79% of those expecting this to be difficult citing “not enough medical staff”.
59% thought their department would support a request to work more flexibly, with 41% saying their department wouldn’t. Of those who thought their department would not support such a request, the key issue was again workforce pressures with over two thirds (76%) citing not enough medical staff.
Retirements are an important reason for worsening staff shortages. 27% of consultants reported expecting to retire in the next three years, with 42% of this group expecting to retire in the next 18 months. Expanding medical school places will be the best long-term solution to addressing shortages in the clinician workforce.
This survey of RCP members and fellows had 1,523 responses, and was conducted between 4-27 June. Further information about our COVID-19 workforce surveys is available on our website.