Scottish Government action is needed to halt an "exodus of nursing staff", union leaders said, after new figures showed a 13% rise in the number of employees leaving the profession.
A total of 2690 nurses in Scotland left in the 12 months to September 2022, coming off the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) register. This was 314 more than in the previous 12 months, with Scotland seeing a higher increase in nurses leaving the profession than the 7% rise recorded in Wales, or the rises of 4% and 3% in England and Northern Ireland, respectively.
Meanwhile, there are more than 4600 vacant registered nursing posts in the NHS in Scotland – meaning approximately 10% of all posts across the country are empty.
RCN Scotland director Colin Poolman said the number of nurses quitting showed the "dire state that ministers have allowed nursing to fall into". He called on the Scottish Government to not only deliver a "fair pay" settlement for nurses and safe staffing levels, but to also produce a nursing retention strategy that "sets out a plan to tackle the exodus of nursing staff from our profession".
He made the plea as one nurse told how "staff are burnt out, exhausted, and now no longer able to keep up with the constant demands for more". The anonymous staff nurse, who works on an acute hospital ward, added: "We are constantly being asked to give more time, more effort, cover more shifts, change our planned shifts – and that is not even taking into account COVID demands.
"This is all just down to the service being so short-staffed and unable to recruit or retain staff. Most of us can't give any more. The workforce is exhausted."
Government 'In Talks' for a 2023-24 Pay Settlement
The Scottish Government is currently in talks with the RCN and other unions representing NHS staff over a pay settlement for 2023-24. That comes after ministers imposed a pay deal which will give health workers an average 7.5% rise in December.
Nurses in the RCN had rejected that deal, and Mr Poolman said: "The increasing numbers of nurses leaving the profession speaks volumes about the dire state that ministers have allowed nursing to fall into through years of underfunding and neglect.
"Nurses are under constant pressure and stress, are regularly working extra, unpaid hours to cover staffing gaps, and are then going home feeling like they’ve been unable to provide the quality of care that they want.
"The toll this takes on staff wellbeing cannot be overestimated."
Mr Poolman continued: "It takes 3 years to educate a newly registered nurse and, on top of this, for every nurse who leaves the profession, valuable experience and expertise are lost.
"Many of those leaving will also have additional qualifications and experience of working in specialist roles.
"The Scottish Government needs to deliver fair pay and safe staffing and develop a nursing retention strategy that sets out a plan to tackle the exodus of nursing staff from our profession."
Number of Nurses Quitting the Profession 'Concerning'
Scottish Labour health spokesperson Jackie Baillie said the number of nurses quitting the profession was “concerning”, and showed the "level of burnout and exhaustion that our hardworking NHS nurses are feeling just now".
She said: "We are hearing time and time again that nurses are only leaving because they feel that they have no other option.
"They are overworked, underpaid, and being forced to work in increasingly challenging environments."
Ms Baillie continued: "The mass exodus from nursing must be stopped. The SNP must act now to ensure that the numbers in nursing are going up rather than down, and take meaningful action to demonstrate that this profession is still seen as the rewarding and valuable career that it always has been."
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton also demanded action from the Scottish Government, saying: "This worrying exodus is yet another sign that the Health Secretary’s plan for NHS recovery is failing.
"Nurses are feeling burned out and undervalued. They need meaningful solutions, not another decade of SNP mismanagement."
Conservative health spokesman Dr Sandesh Gulhane meanwhile stated: "These deeply alarming figures only reaffirm how many nurses are feeling totally burnt out and feel they have been left with no other option but to leave our health service."
He insisted: "The buck for this increase lies firmly with the SNP. Nurses are voting with their feet as they do not believe this SNP government are looking after them.
"Successive SNP health secretaries dire workforce planning has led to thousands of nursing vacancies in Scotland’s NHS and the current incumbent, Humza Yousaf, has done nothing to address this shortfall with his flimsy recovery plans.
"My nursing colleagues on the frontline in Scotland's NHS need to urgently see a proper recovery plan from Humza Yousaf and for him to pull out all the stops to stop this exodus of nurses completely spiralling out of control."
This article contains information from PA Media