Why nursing workforce shortages are hindering progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals

Ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all, at all ages, is a key global target and one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Rosalind Stainton, Policy Advisor at the Royal College of Nursing, reflects on the instrumental role that nursing staff play in public health and in achieving these targets.

The recent analysis of the UK’s progress towards the SDGs by the UN Global Compact Network UK makes clear that despite being over halfway through the agenda, the UK is far from achieving what governments have set out to do by 2030.

The Measuring Up 2.0 report highlights that the UK’s progress towards the health and wellbeing targets is undermined by the workforce crisis experienced within health and care services.

Nurse sitting on floor leaning on wall

In the UK, nursing and midwifery staff are the largest part of the health and care workforce. These dedicated professionals work across all communities and settings, with people of all ages, across all parts of the UK. Nursing staff prevent illness, improve and promote health and wellbeing, and reduce inequalities; playing a critical role in achieving the SDGs.

For too many years, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has been warning about the nursing workforce shortage in the UK, without a sufficient response from the Government. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, our workforce was under intense pressure with up to 50,000 vacancies across the UK, unsafe working conditions, and high levels of burnout. But the pandemic added new pressures and worsened the situation.

Vacancy rates have been compounded by years of under-investment. Successive governments have failed to act to ensure there are the right number of nursing staff, with the right skills, in the right places, at the right time, to meet the complex and changing needs of our population. Sadly, in the context of unprecedented demand for nursing care, including seven million people awaiting hospital treatment in England, there are record numbers of nursing vacancies in the NHS. Thousands of nursing staff are leaving the profession every year and too few nurses are being trained to replace them.

The RCN is calling on governments in all parts of the UK to immediately address the nursing workforce crisis. A fair pay rise and a long-term strategic plan will go some way to address recruitment, retention, and working condition challenges for nursing professionals.

The Measuring Up 2.0 report also recognises that the staffing crisis is an international issue. In the rush to try to fill vacant posts, the UK is drawing on the international nursing workforce – but with a global shortage of nurses and midwives, this risks worsening other countries’ workforce shortages. It is paramount that the UK Government ensures that all international recruitment is mutually beneficial and ethical, in accordance with the UK and World Health Organization’s Codes of Practice.

Another critical area highlighted in the report is the “longstanding health, gender, ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities across the UK” which are undermining progress on the SDGs.  A strong, sufficient, and sustainable nursing workforce is vital to ensure that everyone can access safe and effective health and care services to improve health equity.

Staffing shortages affect the availability and quality of health services, which impacts on people’s access to, and experiences of, care. It can lead to some groups receiving inappropriate, lower quality, or less effective care, or missing out entirely. The RCN believes that strong action is needed from governments to prioritise health equity and address inequalities – investing in a strong nursing workforce is a critical part of this.

As we highlighted in our 2021 report ‘Leaving no one behind , nursing and midwifery staff across the UK are already leading, pioneering, innovating, and delivering work that is contributing to the UK’s progress towards the SDGs. But in order to maximise their contribution and be a driving force for change we need strong and decisive government action. There has never been a more urgent time to act.

Rosalind Stainton is Policy Advisor at the Royal College of Nursing - the world's largest nursing union and professional body.

To read more about the RCN’s work on the Sustainable Development Goals including the RCN (2021) report, ‘Leaving no one behind: The role of the nursing profession in achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the UK’, visit: https://www.rcn.org.uk/news-and-events/news/uk-sustainable-development-goals-report-world-health-day-070421