A hospital in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, is pioneering a new way of working that it hopes will reverse the high turnover rate of nursing staff in Japan.

The Onishi Neurological Center organizes nurses into groups of four, allowing them to take three months of paid vacation in turn. This allows the medical center to pay the nurses lower bonuses, so their total wages equal that for three full-time nurses.

Hideyuki Onishi, 66, director of the hospital, introduced the flexible working style after hearing about the difficulties faced by Japanese nursing volunteers working abroad through Child Doctor Japan, an Osaka-based nonprofit organization offering free medical assistance to children in Africa.

Hisanari Miyata, 37, who has run a clinic in Nairobi for 10 years and heads the NPO’s office in Kenya, explained to Onishi that most of the more than 100 Japanese nurses he has accepted as volunteers had no choice but to leave the hospitals they worked at.

“I suppose many women hope to spend their time doing something that will help them grow, not just working,” Miyata said.

He pitched the three-month holiday program to Onishi as a chance for nurses to become “Cinderellas” by getting a nice long break from their often very demanding day-to-day duties.

Onishi welcomed the proposal because his hospital had been struggling with a high turnover rate for nurses. He named the program “Working Cinderella.”

“There isn’t much point in putting our efforts into educating nurses if they quit,” he said. “If nurses can use their holidays effectively and choose to continue working, it will help improve the quality of our nursing services.”

Yoko Endo, 44, from Osaka, is slated to work at the hospital after graduating from nursing school.

“I was attracted by the holiday program, as I can return to work even after taking a long holiday,” she said.

Endo became a nursing assistant at the age of 40 and has been interested in working as a medical volunteer overseas since visiting India seven years ago.

She has already done volunteer work in Africa, and said that after she starts working for the hospital she will use her long breaks to volunteer there again.

“Since I will continue to be paid during the holidays as well, I have no worries,” she said.

The Japanese Nursing Association estimates that the turnover rate for nurses in fiscal 2011 stood at 10.9 percent, indicating that about 150,000 nurses quit that year.

The association attributed the high figure largely to the severe working conditions faced by nurses.

A 2010 estimate by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, meanwhile, shows that about 710,000 licensed nurses were not working, accounting for as many as one-third of all licensed nurses.

This results in a vicious circle in which hospitals run short of nurses, and the ones still there face ever growing workloads.

“Employment should be ensured with the idea of flexibility,” Onishi said. “I am expecting that the hospital’s program will spill over into other businesses outside the medical industry.”

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