Urgent action needed to retain health and care workers: new WHO-Europe Framework

WHO Regional Committee in Astana, Kazakhstan from 24 to 26 October.

(6 November 2023) EPSU’s demands on staff shortages, improved working conditions, retention and more are addressed in the WHO-Europe region’s framework for 2024-2030.

The WHO-Europe region adopted a framework for action on the health and care workforce for 2023-2030 at the 73rd session of the WHO Regional Committee in Astana, Kazakhstan from 24 to 26 October.

The framework echoes many of EPSU's demands on tackling staff shortages in the health and social care sectors, as well as prior calls for an integrated approach towards health and social care including actions to improve working conditions of both health and care workers. The framework also recognises the importance of protecting workers' mental health, echoing our demand for a dedicated Directive on Psychosocial Risk Factors. It also highlights the importance of tackling third-party violence and eliminating the gender pay gap. The framework emphasises the importance of addressing retention and not only focusing on recruitment, saying that “Improved retention of existing health and care workers, and the return of those who have left the professions, will have early benefits for workforce availability and, as a consequence, service delivery and quality.”

The new Framework sets out 5 key actions that countries can take to protect and support their health and care workers.

  1. Retain and recruit.

This includes policy actions to improve the working conditions of health and care workers, including reducing heavy workloads and excessive working hours, providing more flexibility in contract arrangements and ensuring fair remuneration. These actions will help improve the mental health and well-being of health workers and increase the attractiveness of health jobs, including in rural areas, for existing health workers and for new generations of young students.

  1. Build supply.

This means modernising health education and training, including building digital health competencies to create a fit-for-purpose health workforce for present and future health services demands and needs.

  1. Optimise performance.

This includes measures to increase efficiency of the limited numbers of health workers available in the health system. It is about innovative reconfiguration of health services, using digital health technologies, and redefining teams and skill mix so that the actions they perform add value.

  1. Plan.

Health workforce planning is essential for anticipating future needs of the health system and for taking actions to meet them now. Strengthening the capacity of human resources for health (HRH) units and improving HRH information systems can contribute to this.

  1. Invest.

Increase public investment and optimise the use of funds, while making the economic and social case for investing in the health and care workforce.

EPSU, representing the Pan-European Region of Public Service International (PSI) along with the European Federation of Nurses Associations (EFN) and the Standing Committee of European Doctors (CPME), prepared a joint statement. The statement welcomes the framework and proposes actions to support the aims of the framework through the protection of workers’ rights to collective bargaining and the right to strike:  

We need to ensure that healthcare professionals are not subjected to conditions in which they are worried about their patients’ safety or their own economic or health situation. Effective ways to improve working conditions are through collective bargaining, social dialogue and the right to strike which should be mentioned in the documents.

As well as to develop strategies on staff shortages via social dialogue:

Staff shortages, caused by an inadequate number of personnel or inadequate education/training of health professionals create unsafe conditions. They cause unnecessary additional stress on already overwhelmed health professionals. Therefore, we are calling for developing binding safe staffing levels for healthcare professionals.  We demand that members of the WHO-Europe region develop national strategies with the trade unions and professional organisations to address the shortages of healthcare professionals.

EPSU will be monitoring the implementation of the Framework with its affiliates on the national level, and we will use its recommendation on the European level to lobby the Commission and the Council.

EPSU was represented at the meeting by Razvan Gae, Vice President of the Health and Social Services Standing Committee and Dr Adam Rogalewski, Policy Officer responsible for Health and Social Services (pictured with WHO General Secretary Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus).