'I missed serving my country': the military veterans joining the NHS

In the NHS and military, ‘you’re faced with the grim realities of life and death’. Photograph: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images

Richard Lloyd had dedicated 28 years to the armed forces when he moved with his family to Cumbria to run a guesthouse. But after four years he found something was missing. “I missed the cut and thrust of being in a big team. I missed that camaraderie, and doing service for the country,” he says.

Lloyd had spent his working life stationed in Iraq and assisting with peacekeeping operations in Bosnia in the early 2000s. He never thought he would find a second career in the NHS. But the 52-year-old veteran is one of a growing number of former military personnel carving out lives in the health service.

Lloyd found his new job with the help of Step into Health – a support network recruiting former military people to work in the NHS. It has run as a pilot programme for the last four years at the Norfolk and Norwich university hospital trust (NNUH), and was launched as a nationwide scheme in mid-January. It works with 50 trusts.

The scheme is open to all veterans and their partners and provides career opportunities and support after military service. Following the first pilot with NNUH, 78% of the former military personnel who had done a work placement are employed by the NHS or partner organisation. Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers, says they “would love to see Step into Health expand even further, heading into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as into other parts of the public sector”.

It feels very comfortable – defence is as big a bureaucracy as the NHS

At a time when the NHS is experiencing ongoing workforce problems – there were 15,400 jobs advertised at the time of writing, and reports that one in 10 nurses are leaving the NHS each year – there is a pressing need for this type of scheme.

“It’s even more important in times like this where recruitment is challenging,” says Donna Green, chief nurse and deputy chief executive at Hampshire hospitals NHS foundation trust, one of the trusts involved with Step into Health. “If we can get skilled and experienced people, that’s a benefit to us.”

Unemployment rates are alarmingly high among veterans; working-age veterans are nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as those in the UK general population. And for those applying for jobs, one in 10 veterans claim they have faced discrimination as potential employers raised concerns about them having mental health problems resulting from military service.

“One of the barriers you can come across as ex-military ... is that many civilian organisations have firmly embedded ideas which are not always positive,” says Lloyd. “But I didn’t find that in the NHS at all, they’re all very positive about military people. There’s a shared service ethos, which is very relevant.”

“They tell us that it’s quite scary coming out,” says Green. “They’ve been in a particular environment for a very long time, and understanding what translates as transferable skills is sometimes difficult.”

Lloyd was surprised to find much of his military experience was transferable to his job as a business manager at Cumbria partnership NHS trust. He says: “I’d never considered the NHS as a career because I didn’t come from a clinical or medical background – but [Step into Health] explained there are so many different roles. There is something for everyone.” The NHS is the largest employer in Europe, and half of the 350 career options available are non-clinical.

“[In a] military career, you’re thrown into lots of different situations: training, arduous operations,” says Lloyd. “It’s such a variety that it makes you a very adaptable, self-disciplined kind of person – it’s those organisational skills, the ability to communicate, that are completely transferable.”

Tiffany Hemming started her 21-year military career in the territorial army, and moved to the army after three years. Last October she left the armed forces and, after taking part in the Step into Health programme, she is now executive director of transformation at St Helens and Knowsley teaching hospitals NHS trust.

The transition was scary and the career change “a bit of a midlife crisis”, but she says: “It feels very comfortable – defence is as big a bureaucracy as the NHS.” The skills you gain from the military – organisation, work discipline, leadership – lend themselves well to the health service, she says.

Yet they share more than bureaucracy: in both NHS and military roles, “you’re faced with the grim realities of life and death”, says Lloyd. “The great staff I work with are faced with unfortunate situations for people. And in the military we’ve seen the very worst that can happen to people, or the worst that people are capable of.”

Having experience of dealing with crises or emergencies, alongside a particular outlook on the world, brings a certain connection to the NHS, he says. “We don’t see the world in fluffy tones.”

Do you work for the NHS? Please take our survey and tell us about your job. It should only take 10 minutes

Join the Healthcare Professionals Network to read more pieces like this. And follow us on Twitter (@GdnHealthcare) to keep up with the latest healthcare news and views

If you’re looking for a healthcare job or need to recruit staff, visit Guardian Jobs