Every year, over 4,000 newly graduated nurses and 2,000 social workers enter the Swedish labour market. But they do not last long. Under the surface lies a dissatisfaction that drives many to leave both the workplace and the profession prematurely. Researchers at Lund University will now investigate why.

In July 2016, more than half of all midwives in Helsingborg’s hospital resign. This includes around 36 people over the course of two days. The resignations are made in protest – against stressful working conditions and unreasonable working hours. And it’s not a unique phenomenon. In recent years, several hospitals in Sweden have suffered mass resignations of nurses.

Rebecca Selberg

“What’s wrong here?”, Dr Rebecca Selberg at Lund University wonders. “Why choose to leave instead of working for change?” Together with her research team at Lund University, she is now launching a three-year research project aimed at investigating the tendency for resignation among nurses and social workers.

These professions, both strongly female-dominated, are two of the largest in the public sector. But they also have another common denominator: an unusually high labour mobility. This tendency extends beyond mass resignations in individual workplaces. Many also choose to completely leave the profession prematurely.

One in five want to leave the profession after five years

A study conducted in 2013–2014 at Karolinska Institutet shows that one in five nurses strongly consider leaving the profession after just five years.

This problem is also international. In a European study involving over 33,000 nurses, 49 per cent said they were considering leaving the profession.

Why choose to leave instead of working for change?

Among social workers, the phenomenon is less explored, but there are signs of similar trends in this profession as well. A survey of 309 social workers in Stockholm County Council showed, for example, that 54 per cent had been in their current workplace for two years or less, and 48 per cent already wanted to leave their job.

“There are, of course, other professions where mobility is as high or even higher, for example some service sectors. But in relation to comparable professions, that is, other professions requiring a three-year college education, the numbers are remarkable”, says Rebecca Selberg.

“These people have spent three years of their lives learning the profession. Most will take out student loans. It’s a huge investment in both time and money. But still they choose to change their careers after just a short amount of time. It raises many questions”, she continues.

Why nurses and social workers change their jobs and careers to such a high degree is of course an interesting question – but is it important? Is there a problem here, or can the high mobility in fact be positive for organisations and the profession as a whole?

“It is of course positive that the sector does not get stilted. But many managers experience the turnover rates as a problem. It takes significant resources, you need to train new people and it’s difficult to plan ahead. In addition, the issue is highly important for the wellbeing of the people employed in this sector – there seems to be underlying inadequacies”, says Rebecca Selberg.

In pursuit of underlying factors

We already know a lot about nurses’, and to a certain extent social workers’, tendency to change workplace and profession. However, previous studies have mainly focused on quantitative data. There is a lot of research on how many people leave the profession or who are thinking about leaving. This is also interesting, says Rebecca Selberg, but we are missing one important aspect: Why?

In the study “Exit, voice and loyalty – an intersectional study on professional turnover among nurses and social workers”, the research group has chosen to use a wide range of research methods. Combining a comprehensive survey with ethnographic surveys and in-depth interviews at selected workplaces, they want to get closer to understanding the underlying causes.

Rebecca Selberg and her research team hope that the results of their studies will provide concrete benefits to organisations within county administrations and health care. They want to give managers and employees the keys to a better understanding and the tools to implement change – so that nurses and social workers will want to stay.

Text: Antonia Hallberg