Why the NHS Needs Workforce Planning More Than Ever


By Skills for Health | 24 April 2024

Drawing on more than 14 years of dedicated service in the public sector, Jon Freegard, Principal Workforce Planning Consultant at Skills for Health, offers invaluable insights from a career spent supporting the development, transformation and empowerment of the workforce.

What is the role of workforce planning in healthcare and why is it important?

Fundamentally it’s about delivering the right services for patients. Effective workforce planning can help us to understand how we can build and sustain the workforce required to meet the demands of patients now and in the future. It’s a combination of method, tools and thinking to describe possible futures, those internal and external factors that will play a part, and to focus on critical actions. It’s both a specialist discipline and a responsibility shared by anyone working to deliver a service.

With all the known pressures on the NHS, the absence of local workforce plans (aligned to the aims of the NHS Long-Term Workforce Plan) is untenable. There must be a plan, a purposefulness to build resilience and preparedness. There continues to be a lot of pressure on the NHS in terms of its staff; effective workforce planning can be designed to alleviate some of these challenges by anticipating future needs and focusing on actions which improve attraction and retention.

What are the most pressing workforce challenges facing the sector?

The NHS faces many of the pressures experienced across the public sector. These include a lack of workforce availability to meet demands, a workforce shortage that impacts efficiency and performance and wage stagnation. Each of these factors impacts on the experiences of the current workforce and the perception of the NHS as a prospective employer. These challenges can seem overwhelming given their complexity.

What strategies do you recommend for forecasting future workforce needs in a healthcare setting?

In the past three or four years we’ve collectively experienced a paradigm shift in the workforce. I’ve described this before as pre-Covid, Covid and post-Covid. A return to pre-Covid is unlikely. The NHS will do well to focus on the skills required to develop scenario plans which map out different possible futures in the context of workforce planning. Perspectives on past indicators, such as staff turnover, will necessarily have to adapt as we continue to see an increasingly transient workforce.

How can organisations embed a culture of wellbeing and recognition?

By listening and responding. The annual NHS Staff Survey results provide a fantastic evidence-based assessment that reflects the experiences of many working in the NHS. At a national level the NHS Staff Survey identifies key themes and areas for improvement. Having a plan to address inadequate staffing levels, ease time pressures and pay satisfaction concerns will all contribute to wellbeing and recognition.

What sets Skills for Health’s approach to integrated workforce planning apart?

Our Six Steps Methodology to Integrated Workforce Planning has been co- produced and iterated over the course of two-decades with colleagues across the NHS. It has become a common language, a shared understanding of a methodical approach to workforce planning. It encourages thoughtful, collaborative thinking. Workforce planning as a discipline can be daunting. Our methodology recognises the complexities involved, but we present them in an accessible way which enables colleagues to make a start.

We encourage plans in the spirit of progress over perfection. A plan is better than the absence of one. A workforce plan built using the Six Steps Methodology can be refined, improved and expanded once created, so we try and make the process easy to start and remain engaged with.

How do you measure the effectiveness of workforce planning initiatives?

It all depends on the scope and the purpose of the plan, which is why we encourage a significant amount of thinking in Step 1 of our Six Steps Methodology. In our development programmes we focus on the individuals who have been tasked with building a plan. We measure things such as their knowledge, skills and confidence in approaching and delivering workforce planning activities. This latter measure – confidence – is crucial, as there is too much mystique around workforce planning that we collectively need to overcome. Let’s be more specific with our plans. An action that says ‘improve morale’ needs specificity: how, by how much and by when.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to employers about to embark on their workforce plan or strategy?

Make a start. The first iteration will likely look nothing like the fifth or sixth and that’s okay.

Get in touch

Skills for Health are leading workforce development experts. We have worked with most NHS trusts and healthcare organisations in the UK to develop, create and manage workforce plans using our nationally recognised Six Steps Methodology to Integrated Workforce Planning®. Get in touch today to find out more about our services.  


Tam Whipp joins Skills for Health as a Technical Consultant 

Laura Schell appointed as Skills for Health Client Director 

Transforming Children’s Healthcare: A Collaborative Approach to Health Play Workforce Development 

Get the latest updates by email

Sign up to our monthly newsletter to receive the latest updates straight to your inbox. We’ll keep you up to date with sector news, insights, intelligence reports, service updates and special offers on our services and solutions.

Sign up to our newsletter