Scheme to retain Singapore nurses seen as major step but more must be done

Nurses attend the National University Hospital’s LUVing Nurses Forum on Feb 20, 2024. - ST

SINGAPORE: A newly announced special payout scheme aimed at retaining nurses is set to bring great cheer to a sector that has not only long grappled with manpower shortages, but was also hit by a wave of resignations during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Nurses are happy and industry experts lauded the move, saying that it helps to make the job more attractive.

However, it must be part of an ongoing holistic approach – including non-monetary incentives such as flexibility at work – that is taken not just to retain nurses, but also to increase the attractiveness of the nursing profession, the experts said.

On Feb 20, Health Minister Ong Ye Kung announced payouts of $20,000 to $30,000 every four to six years for nurses aged below 46 under the Award for Nurses’ Grace, Excellence and Loyalty (Angel) scheme, which starts in September. Nurses will get to take home up to $100,000 over a 20-year period.

Nurses who are aged 46 and above, with at least five years in service, can get an immediate payout of $5,000 to $15,000, depending on their years of service, followed by $15,000 every three years. They can also potentially receive up to $100,000 over a period of time.

About 29,000 nurses in the publicly funded healthcare system, and newly recruited nurses every year henceforth, can benefit from the Angel scheme. It comes amid intense global competition for nurses, even as Singapore has ramped up recruitment.

Since end-2022, more than 5,600 nursing job offers have been accepted, of which about 4,500 nurses have been registered to work, surpassing the 3,400 new nurses in 2022, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said.

Ahmad Shufi Jasmani, 39, a senior staff nurse who has been with the National Skin Centre for 15 years, said he plans to use the payout to take his wife, who is also a nurse, and four daughters overseas for a holiday.

The only issue is the wait. Long-serving nurses aged 46 and above will get their first retention award by the end of 2024, while nurses aged below 46 will get their first payout in 2028, when they reach their first milestone.

Still, Shufi said the news is “very positive”, and he feels nurses are being shown appreciation by MOH.

He thinks the payouts are quite substantial, and hence likely to entice more nurses – particularly foreign nurses – to stay on in the profession here.

Foreign nurses will be eligible for the Angel scheme after they have served four years in the public healthcare sector.

Dr Catherine Koh, group chief nurse at the National University Health System (NUHS), said the Angel scheme would be a pull factor for nurses in public healthcare services who are considering leaving the profession, as well as attract other nurses to rejoin public healthcare.

She said it would also help NUHS nurses who are approaching official retirement age extend their careers, as the group is offering opportunities in role redesign to tap their wealth of experience.

Under the scheme, nurses on post-retirement contracts can receive a one-off recognition payout if they have at least five years of service.

Professor Liaw Sok Ying, head of the Alice Lee Centre for Nursing Studies at the National University of Singapore’s Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine – which has enrolled around 300 to 350 students a year in recent years – said the new initiative could spark significant discussions among those considering entering or returning to the nursing profession.

They include not just young people, but also those in their mid-career stages, active nurses and former nurses, she said.

“While tapping the local talent pool, this strategy may also offer Singapore a strategic benefit in drawing international nurses looking to establish and advance their careers within the country,” she said.

Prof Liaw said every nurse aspires to care, and it is this aspiration that must be nurtured, starting from education.

After graduation, hiring organisations can nurture this by providing a supportive work environment, professional growth, attractive remuneration, career advancement, flexible work arrangements, and so on, she said.

Furthermore, there is a constant need to review retention strategies.

Take Filipino Herrera Jacqelene Kaye Zubieto, 36, a staff nurse at NTUC Health Nursing Home (Jurong West), who has worked here for 13 years. She is single, feels safe living here and likes her working environment.

Most of all, she likes being relatively close to the Philippines, where her 65-year-old mother, whom she is supporting, lives.

Admittedly, she has wondered if she should venture farther for a better pay package at some point, after hearing about the opportunities in other countries, such as Britain.

After hearing news of the retention scheme, Herrera said she is happy with her decision to stay put.

“If there was a chance to go overseas, I think I would have gone. But now, with this news, I’m glad to stay here in Singapore.”

She plans to set aside the payouts for her retirement.

About 5,000 nurses from publicly funded community care organisations and social service agencies are among those who stand to benefit from the scheme, provided their employers co-fund the payouts.

NTUC Health’s human resources head Kok Ee Lan is looking forward to getting more details on the scheme, given that the community care sector has traditionally found it more challenging to recruit nurses.

The social enterprise, which has six nursing homes, has just over 220 nurses, of whom half are locals, and the rest foreigners, mostly from the Philippines and Myanmar. Its nurses generally stay an average of 3½ to four years, though the locals tend to remain longer, she said.

Kok said the Government has done a lot to attract nurses over the years, with the new scheme being a “pretty strategic move”.

Still, more can be done, as she has seen nurses leave Singapore for another country, lured by factors such as a better work-life balance, the ease of obtaining permanent residency and the opportunity to take their family with them.

“I feel like it has to be the entire ecosystem. Money is only one of the pillars,” she said.

She recently spoke to a foreign nurse who had worked here for six years and was keen to become a permanent resident, but her application was not approved, and an offer came from a British healthcare institution.

“We do have very good foreign nurses who have their hearts with us, but their heads tell them to go,” said Kok.

MOH has said that between 2018 and 2022, around 700 foreign nurses were granted permanent residency status each year.

Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng, who had previously spoken in Parliament about nurse remuneration, also said the scheme is a step forward, but other steps like flexible working arrangements are needed as part of a broader ongoing look at how to retain nurses.

It can be a challenging time for Singaporeans on the nursing front line who have to juggle work and be a parent to young children or care for an elderly parent, or both, he said.

Stronger workplace support can make or break their decision to stay in healthcare, Dr Tan added.

To attract nurses, healthcare institutions are coming up with various initiatives and leveraging technology to mitigate manpower constraints.

NUHS, for instance, said it has put in place flexible work arrangements and is recruiting additional healthcare professionals to boost manpower, both locally and internationally.

It is also developing roles such as nursing informatics specialists for nurses who are competent in information technology and data analytics.

NUHS’ Dr Koh said nurses are equal partners in clinical care, together with doctors and other job groups.

In the private sector, nurses are also rewarded in various ways.

For instance, at Raffles Medical Group, a spokesperson said its rewards include providing nurses with greater work flexibility, bonuses, staff benefits and compensation.

The group is also committed to helping its nurses optimise their career goals and progression, the spokesperson added.

NTUC Health’s Kok said that to draw new nurses, there needs to be a constant rebranding of the profession.

It is about reaching the stage “where our children will say ‘I want to be a nurse’”, she said. - The Straits Times/ANN

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