One-way pendulum? Staff retention in the NHS: determining the relative salience of recognised drivers of early exit

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (SciVal)
93 Downloads (Pure)


Purpose: Staff shortage in the UK National Health Service has a long history, but is widely predicted to become acute over the next decade. Falling enrolment rates in health professional training and restrictions to migrant labour recruitment have brought the, traditionally neglected, issue of staff retention into sharp relief. The purpose of this paper is to represent the first large scale systematic appraisal of the relative salience of recognised headline drivers of employee exodus from the NHS. Design/methodology/approach: The data were collected from an opportunity sample of 1,594 health professionals, managers and administrators employed by the NHS. Participants completed a paired ranking task (Case V method of paired comparisons, Thurston, 1927) to determine the relative importance of eight widely cited reasons for exit. The item set was derived from focus groups conducted as a component of the wider study. Findings: Findings revealed almost universal consensus regarding the primacy of shortage of resources, job demands and time pressure. Pay was ranked lower than predicted. Flexible working arrangements do not presented as a key solution, and there is no support for claims of generational differences. Research limitations/implications: Survivor population effects could constitute a source of sample bias, i.e. all participants were current NHS employees. It is possible that those who remain may be more resilient or hold different dispositions to leavers. Thus, comparisons by age and grade may not be comparing like with like. Tapping respondent beliefs about the actions of peers can embody some degree of inaccuracy and attribution bias. However, effects can be considered to operate as a source of common, rather than systematic, error across the demographics compared. The medical and dental sample was too small to give confidence in detected differences. Practical implications: Findings challenge the claim that wider availability of flexible working hours will significantly reduce exit rates. Pay, being a source of dissatisfaction, does not constitute a key push variable in itself, rather its salience reflects the effort reward-imbalance produced by rises in job demands. Social implications: Staff shortages in the NHS represent a threat to: public well-being – waiting lists and demand for care; the well-being of who continue to work in the NHS – job demands and resources; the employment prospects of staff who leave involuntarily, e.g. on grounds of incapacity and threats to health and well-being – extending to impacts on their dependents. Originality/value: Issues of staff retention within the NHS are topical and under researched. The findings provide an up to date picture of the relative influence of headline drivers of early exit from the NHS. The study draws upon a more diverse and comprehensive sample of NHS employees that any other known previous studies of early exit. Findings are of potential international relevance to other State health systems. The authors believe this to be the largest (sample) known application of the method of paired comparisons.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)45-60
Number of pages16
JournalInternational Journal of Workplace Health Management
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2019


  • Health services
  • Human resources
  • NHS
  • Staff retention

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business, Management and Accounting (miscellaneous)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


Dive into the research topics of 'One-way pendulum? Staff retention in the NHS: determining the relative salience of recognised drivers of early exit'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this