The risks and rewards of temporary health care staff

  • The UK has the second largest temporary workforce in Europe
  • In the health sector, temporary workers can provide valuable assistance during busy periods
  • There are a number of risks associated with the use of agency and locum staff that organisations’ need to consider
  • We look at how to mitigate these risks and how you can get the best value from your temporary workforce

The UK has the second highest temporary workforce in Europe, with more than 1.2 million estimated to be working at any one time. During public and bank holidays the number of temporary staff soars, as organisations make arrangements to cover these busy periods.

The health sector has become particularly reliant on expensive agency and locum staff during holiday periods. A July 2014 investigation revealed that NHS hospitals were being required to pay as much as £2,500 for a doctor, and £1,800 for a nurse, to work a single day over the May Day bank holiday. Last year NHS foundation trusts in England spent nearly £2bn on agency staff.

This has led to the government introducing new measures to cut NHS agency staff costs. A maximum hourly rate will be set for temps, and the amount that trusts that are struggling financially can spend will also be capped.

However, the agencies’ body says they are being scapegoated “for the NHS’s own mismanagement of workforce planning.”

Benefits of temporary staff

From surgeons to cleaners, temporary workers in the health sector play an important role. They provide flexibility and relief during difficult times, covering for employee absences and providing trained staff to cope with unexpected or temporary demands. For the workers themselves, temporary contracts can offer a greater work-life balance, increased variety of activities and the opportunity to gain broader experience and skills.

A mix of temporary and full-time employees can result in a more efficient workplace by helping to build more resilient service delivery and outcomes, providing a more flexible job market and improving productivity.

However, there are a number of associated risks that healthcare organisations need to manage effectively.

Your responsibilities and duties to temporary staff

Temporary staff can be engaged in a number of different ways. Some will be employed by an agency, whereas others may classify themselves as self-employed. Knowing the true nature of the relationship between yourself and a temporary staff member is very important, as different types of relationship will put varying degrees of responsibility on each party.

Employment status is a complex legal issue, and what the parties choose to call themselves does not dictate the actual relationship from a legal perspective. For example, a temporary worker may call themselves self-employed, and even submit their own invoices, however this does not automatically mean they are self-employed in law. A court may decide that the reality of the relationship is one of employer and employee.

Be sure to fully assess the true nature of the relationship, particularly if using a new agency, or new independent contractors,

Although the vast majority of agency staff will slot happily into place, organisations must ensure they have the procedures and practices to manage any additional risks. Zurich Municipal is always happy to assist customers with any questions they might have about the use of temporary staff.

Getting them up to speed

From emergency procedures to filing systems, every organisation will have a different way of doing things. While some temporary staff may have worked for you before, the likelihood is that they are much less familiar with your practices and procedures than a permanent employee.

If a temporary worker is not familiar with a patient’s medical history and gives incorrect treatment, this could have severe consequences. Similarly, if a fire was to occur and there were injuries as a result of not being told the proper evacuation procedures, this could result in a claim against the organisation. Even if they are only employed for one shift, what happens during that period could severely impact an organisation far into the future.

It is therefore important that agency and locum staff be given the same consideration as you would a permanent member of staff. This should include them receiving an induction to cover important information and procedures, such as health and safety. It should always be clear what their duties are, who is responsible for their supervision and who they can ask for help should they have any questions.

The right person for the job

Temporary workers are often taken on at short notice and although they will have had to prove medical qualifications if appropriate, they may not have been subject to the same degree of due diligence that organisations would typically undertake. Understandably, this has inherent risks that organisations must ensure they address.

Firstly, it is a criminal offence to employ anybody subject to immigration controls, or who does not have the right to work in the UK. It is therefore essential that appropriate checks have been made, and that evidence is readily available.

Additionally, in the healthcare sector, temporary staff are commonly placed on the front line dealing with patients which are more likely to result in liability issues. The implications of employing someone who is not suitable for the role can therefore have severe financial, legal and reputational consequences.

For these reasons, it is essential that organisations maintain a tight control over the sourcing of all types of staff, whether permanent or temporary and at any level of seniority. Regardless of the time-pressures, appropriate background screening should always be undertaken to ensure they are suitably qualified and have the correct legal status. If using an agency to source staff, ensure their processes and procedures are adequate, and that they have fully vetted all candidates they put forward.