Internet Explorer is no longer supported by Microsoft. To browse the NIHR site please use a modern, secure browser like Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox, or Microsoft Edge.

HSDR Workforce Research Partnerships - commissioning brief


Published: 19 April 2023

Version: 1.0 - April 2023

Print this document

The NIHR HSDR Programme is looking to fund up to 3 multi-disciplinary partnerships to co-produce and conduct research on diverse aspects of the health and social care workforce. These partnerships will conduct high quality, national research projects on key priority areas in the organisation, delivery, and development of workforce. The aim is also to build capacity and capability in workforce research and share data, learning and skills at a national level. The research partnerships will reach into both health and social care services, although some partnerships may have greater focus on one or other sector, to develop and test innovations to inform workforce planning and deployment, drawing on the expressed needs of Integrated Care Systems (ICS) and on knowledge bases outside traditional health and care research, such as:

  • human resources
  • labour economics
  • work and wellbeing
  • management science
  • organisational psychology
  • employment

The Programme is interested in all staff groups in the health and care systems and all organisations across the different sectors including both clinical and non-clinical health and social care staff groups and across all stages of career from apprenticeship through to older and experienced staff. The Programme is particularly interested to see research which will benefit staff who are less often the focus of workforce research, such as, allied health professionals, support staff as well as `behind the scenes’ administration and operations staff.

Applications are invited from partnerships with broad knowledge, interest, and expertise in workforce, in either one or both sectors – health and social care. Partnership teams may also identify areas of specific expertise, whether on particular professional groups or on particular areas, including but not limited to:

  • diversity and inclusion
  • workforce data and analytics
  • staff wellbeing
  • recruitment and retention
  • multi-professional teams

Over the initial 18 months, teams will be asked to work with NIHR and with NHS and social care stakeholders to scope a workplan of research studies that play to each partnership team’s particular interests and strengths. This workplan will have followed detailed scoping and engagement with national and local stakeholders to identify important areas of uncertainty, or gaps, and workforce innovations and have produced detailed plans for conducting high quality, national research. There may be scope for testing innovations that either arise from existing research or are drawn from other sectors for testing within the NHS and UK social care or promising solutions developed within local health and social care economies and within providers with potential for national scale-up. The HSDR Programme may also, from time to time, refer a topic from national bodies, relevant to the expertise of a specific partnership.

Partnerships need to be able to demonstrate established links with national and local stakeholders relevant to their areas of research expertise. This might include:

  • professional bodies
  • regulators
  • trade unions
  • health and care providers
  • international workforce organisations
  • management networks

Applicants need to articulate their engagement, dissemination and impact strategies including tailored, services-facing resources and interventions, as well as high-quality, academic outputs through the NIHR Journals Library and elsewhere.

Applicants need to focus on diversity and inclusion, and the need to address inequalities, both within the workforce and the service-using population, in all aspects of the design and work of the workforce research partnerships.

Applicants will also need to demonstrate how they will develop meaningful engagement in all aspects of their work with staff, both locally and nationally, and how they will embed their research partnership in the health and care service delivery systems.

The value of each of the contracts for the workforce research partnerships is up to £5 million over 5 years. There will be a stop/go review point at the end of 2 years and a break point at 3 years. By the end of the first 18 months of the contract, the HSDR Programme will want to see that the workplan of the partnerships is fully scoped and established with the indicative work, featuring a mix of 1 or 2 large-scale ambitious studies and a number of scoping projects, playing to the strengths of the team. To do this, the partnership will have brought together relevant stakeholders including commissioners and providers of health and care services and staff groups and have agreed ways of working to embed and evaluate research collaborations with at least 1 `bottom-up’ innovation or workforce initiative identified or developed ready for evaluation as well as more worked-up research studies building on the existing expertise of the team.

The successful partnerships will be expected to join to form a community of practice and expertise. The HSDR Programme Secretariat will enable this in the first instance at least. However, as with other groups of studies commissioned by the Programme, the partnerships will be expected to develop communication and cross-working, to ensure complementarity and sharing of best practice, as well as to amplify outputs during the lifetime of the contracts and to maximise engagement with policy and service stakeholders. If an applicant partnership is interested in leading this aspect, then please note this in the application.

An NIHR Academy post can be attached to a partnership application to develop capacity in workforce research.


Workforce is a critical area for health and social care with 1 in 8 nurse posts and 1 in 10 social/care worker posts unfilled. At the end of 2022, there were 165,000 vacancies in social care (Skills for Care) and more than 133,000 vacancies in healthcare (NHS Vacancy Statistics). Workforce has been identified as the largest internal threat to the sustainability of the NHS.

The HSDR Programme has funded many landmark studies on workforce which have influenced policy and practice. These include work on safe nurse staffing levels, recruitment and retention of GPs, evaluation of new roles from enhanced paramedics to physician associates, staff substitution and skill mix in midwifery, safe cultures and speaking up, and initiatives to improve staff mental well-being. Around a quarter to a third of HSDR-funded research studies have a core focus on workforce.

The HSDR Programme is a leading funder of research into the health and care workforce. Other important NIHR funders in this area include the Policy Research Unit in Health and Social Care Workforce and the Policy Research Programme which funds specific studies of major national policy initiatives. There is also funding of workforce research by the Health Foundation, Health Education England, and others, but, despite this, demand for research by NHS and social care leaders and practitioners, outstrips supply mainly due to issues of capacity.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has published its vision for a future care workforce strategySkills for Care has worked with the LGA and Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) to identify collaborative priorities for the social care workforce 2020 – 2025Health Education England’s 2022/23 business plan sets out its strategic goals and objectives for the period and includes developing a new strategic planning framework based on integrated workforce planning which will be a new Framework 15.

The NHS People Plan sets out a range of actions to deliver the aims of the Long Term Plan for “more people, working differently in a compassionate and inclusive culture”. The workforce plan due to be published this spring will provide an important basis for the HSDR workforce research partnerships. These ambitions are also set out in NHS England’s business plan 2022/2023. NHS England’s retention hub aims to support local organisations and the NHS has published its report on the future of NHS human resources and organisational development.

Likely outputs

Audience appropriate products such as a variety of digital formats (for example podcast, video, social media, etc.) along with a communications strategy to ensure that the relevant audiences are aware of the products.

The NIHR supports a number of publication opportunities, therefore, if appropriate:

Equality, diversity and inclusion

The NIHR is committed to actively and openly supporting and promoting equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI). All NIHR research proposals need to demonstrate that they have met the requirements of the Equality Act (2010) by embedding EDI throughout their research study, ensuring that there is no discrimination across the following domains: age; disability; race (including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin); religion or belief; sex; sexual orientation; gender reassignment; being married or in a civil partnership; and being pregnant or on maternity leave. Applicants are expected to pay attention to populations that have been underserved, to conduct research in locations where the need is greatest, and to promote the inclusion of diverse participants.

General guidance

The HSDR Programme supports applied research with the aim of improving both health and social care services across the nation and is open to any appropriate methodological approaches to answer the proposed research question(s); the approach must be fully explained and justified. In order to enhance the success of a research proposal, a clear theory of change and pathway to impact, with links into the NHS and social care services delivery, is suggested. It is useful to consider in the research study design how outcomes could be scaled up to maximise impact and value for money across the NHS and social care services – the focus is on applied research with tangible impacts that improve the quality and organisation of health and social care services. This includes stakeholder engagement and the development of processes, tools and guidelines to strengthen workforce capacity.

Research proposals should be co-produced with national organisations, professional bodies, health and social care service professionals, and service users. Links with health and social care planners and professional bodies are required to ensure impact and scaling up of research findings to benefit the wider health and social care system.

The COVID-19 pandemic is having a significant impact across the health and social care system. As this research may be conducted during the COVID-19 response and recovery period, applicants should consider how the impact of the COVID-19 response and recovery may affect the deliverability of their research.