Myth vs Fact: Career as an Agency Nurse

The headlines of recent years, including the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions imposed by IR35 legislation, have seen temporary health and social care workers reassess their vocations and wonder on the benefits of permanent vs temporary hospital positions.

Staff nurses often see negative perceptions from the media or overhear incorrect information shared by colleagues about their agency counterparts. The reality is that whatever your current situation and your ambitions, a locum career has something to offer every skilled nursing professional.

5 Common Beliefs and Realities of Becoming an Agency Nurse

1. It’s a Part-Time Career

The widely-reported shortage of nurses has reduced in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic and Help for Heroes campaign saw a major uplift to the volume of healthcare job applications, and the number of nursing professionals leaving the Register is the lowest in five years. The UK press and Government have often created the perception that nursing shortages will be greatly reduced in the next five years, and that existing healthcare professionals may be joined by more colleagues than ever before.

The flexibility afforded by a locum position can lead some to believe that large gaps in employment and constant job-seeking efforts are a requirement of the job. Whilst greater efforts are now expended on recruitment and retention, the NMC Register reports a drop of almost 10% in the volume of new joiners in 2020/2021 compared to the previous year. Over half of all nurses are aged over 40, with retirements in the next two decades requiring urgent attention. The UK’s nursing shortage will continue, and the need for qualified, skilled nursing specialists to fill both temporary and permanent posts will be ongoing for many years ahead, meaning locums will remain as busy as ever.

2. You’re Selling Out

The majority of public sector professionals join the healthcare service to make a positive difference in society. Many nursing specialists are motivated by their core principles of a universal right to healthcare treatment, regardless of an individual’s wealth or status, causing conflict for some considering an agency position for a better wage and work/life balance.

The reality is: locums are a vital part of the entire healthcare infrastructure. Whilst agency workers may receive higher hourly pay and enjoy more flexibility, they are desperately needed to fill staffing gaps in the NHS, private hospitals and care homes, particularly in emergency situations. All nursing specialists work towards the same goal – saving and improving the lives of patients and their families – and healthcare contractors make a difference to thousands of lives every year, regardless of their pay packet and contract terms.

3. Agency Workers Don’t Receive Equal Benefits

A perception persists amongst permanent healthcare professionals that agency work is inferior and, despite higher daily wages, will cause nurses to miss out, particularly concerning financial security. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although the agency cap is currently set at 55% higher than the earnings of a permanent counterpart, the average nursing salary in 2021 is around £33,000 and £35,000 – a 55% increase is still a significant boost to take-home pay. Many nurses actually choose locum roles because they earn more per hours worked than they would in a similar permanent position.

Whilst benefits can differ between contractors and full-time staff in any industry, agency workers are entitled to most of the same benefits offered to their permanent colleagues. All agency workers are legally entitled to the following rights:

  • Rest breaks
  • Limits on working time
  • Minimum of 5.6 weeks’ paid annual leave
  • Access to the same facilities enjoyed by permanent employees, including the staff canteen, transport, car parking and childcare facilities
  • Certain maternity and paternity rights and parental leave (rising to match permanent staff entitlement after 12 weeks)
  • Automatic pension enrolment (after 12 weeks).

4. Contracting Will Be Bad for Your Career

For staff nurses, moving around hospitals or care homes every few months might create a reputation of someone who is unsure about their career goals or less motivated to deal with difficult situations. In contrast, spending time working as a locum can be incredibly positive for your current and future career aspirations.

Agency nurses require exactly the same skills and qualifications as any of their contemporaries, although the vast number of different working environments and situations will garner many more skills in a much shorter space of time. Locum nurses by nature of their role must complete a variety of tasks, adapt fast, think on their feet, excel at difficult conversations, and often maintain focus in high pressure situations without direct knowledge and experience of a specific situation. These skills will provide the best Learning & Development opportunities whilst on the job, and will give locum nurses a competitive edge should they choose to return to a staff role.

5. There’s No Support in a Contract Role

One common reason behind a permanent nurse’s reluctance to try a locum career path is the perception around support. However, most agency professionals will tell you that rather than an ‘us and them’ mentality between permanent and temporary colleagues, staff and workers of all backgrounds and arrangements collaborate very happily. In the same way as staff nurses prioritise the care of their patients, when locums and staff professionals work together, everyone is focused wholly on the best outcomes for each patient, regardless of who provides the care or who they are officially employed by.

Contractors in any industry often worry about the level of support each job will bring. It’s true that contractors must often try harder to build relationships with colleagues, rely more on external support networks and take more of a proactive approach to their CPD and qualifications. However, every locum is entitled to the same information, help and personal support offered by the management team to their permanent colleagues. Hospitals and care home managers are directly responsible for the effectiveness and wellbeing of everyone under their leadership, whether for days or for years, and must commit to support you regardless of your working arrangements.

Unlike staff nurses, locums also benefit from the very close support of their recruitment and contractor management agencies. In addition to organising your schedule and advocating for pay and benefits on your behalf, contract recruitment consultants can provide essential job market intelligence, careers advice garnered from speaking with thousands of contractors in similar roles, and a sounding board and friendly ear for professional challenges. Contractor management agencies provide more than just payroll: they can act as vital advisors when moving across nations and regions, protecting yourself legally and managing your career path.

Get the Right Support in Your Agency Nursing Career

Generate have helped thousands of nurses with their contract work placements. Find out how we could support you.

Discover 3 Ways that Hospitals and Care Homes Will Change Following Covid-19.


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