William Roberts FRSPH, CEO, Royal Society for Public Health

Nearly a decade ago, we introduced the concept of the wider public health workforce, and the potential within this workforce to prevent and protect the health of the nation. We define the wider public health workforce as “all staff engaged in or who want to engage in public health activities, who identify public health as being an important part of their role but are not employed within the core public health workforce.”  

Since then, around one in 500 people in the UK have been through one of the various training and educational products we created to meet the needs of the wider public health workforce. However, we know our work is far from done.

Over the last decade, ill health in the UK population has risen significantly. Making matters worse, we have seen a growing challenge to recruit and retain people to work in the public health workforce. If we want a healthy and wealthy nation, it starts with having an army of people who can help to improve its collective health. 

With this in mind, we decided to return to our work on the wider public health workforce. Our recently published report, The Unusual Suspects: Unlocking the Potential of the Wider Public Health Workforcelays out our vision for harnessing this workforce. In this document, we revisited some of the estimates around the scale and scope of the wider public health workforce. This has led to us refining our numbers and identifying what we believe is a more reasonable and realistic estimate.

How big is the wider public health workforce? 

In our original report we worked with the Centre for Workforce Intelligence and used a methodology that identified the occupational and professions groups that could be considered reasonably to be within the wider public health workforce. We then used available ONS workforce data to generate an estimate of the size of the wider public health workforce. In our revised estimates, we employed the same methodology, using the latest ONS workforce data, but applied two additional criteria.  

Firstly, we revisited the 170 occupations listed in the original report. The impact of this was the removal of a number of broad and large workforce groups for whom it is possible to argue is part of the wider public health workforce, but in whom we had seen no evidence since the initial report that they identified this way. Our engagement with different professional bodies during the course of producing the new report and reviewing the occupation lists associated with RSPH membership allowed us to identify professions who were actively seeking membership within the wider public health workforce. 

Secondly, in a refinement to the original methodology, we identified that not all members of every profession would qualify as part of the wider public health workforce. Therefore, to generate the estimates we applied three different approaches.

In the first approach we assumed that 10% of the workforce could become an active member of the wider public health workforce. In the second approach we applied three bandings, low (5% active), medium (10% active), and high (20% active), and applied these to each workforce based upon the historic levels of engagement with us. In the third and final approach, we applied the three bandings, but for professions where we knew were actively part of the wider public health workforce, we assumed 100% of that workforce would become active. 

The first and biggest implication of this change in methodology has been too revised down our headline figure for the size of the wider public health workforce from 15-20 million to 7.75 million. Whilst this is a significant reduction, it still represents a huge number of people and a large potential workforce to tap into.  

As the table below shows, this has given us a very clear range of potential members of the wider public health workforce who would like to be active. With between 750,000 and 1.5 million people this represents a huge potential untapped reserve of capacity and capability to improve the health of the nation. Given that since the last report we have trained in excess of an additional 138,000 people, this probably represents only 10% of the potential workforce.


Why does this matter? 

We think this matters for a number of reasons: 

  1. The potential to support and harness the 1.5m people who could significantly improve the health of the nation, and want to do so is a huge untapped opportunity. This represents a committed and willing army of people ready to respond and create a healthier nation. 
  2. The people within this group have told us that they find it confusing and difficult to both enter and progress within the wider public health workforce. Creating simpler and easier ways for them to both enter the workforce and then develop careers within public health needs to be a priority. 
  3. There is currently no joined up workforce strategy for people working within the public health workforce. This limits the ability of national bodies, professional bodies, employers and employees to develop, fund and engage with the wider public health workforce. 

Our report called for  

  1. A comprehensive public health workforce strategy, which encompasses the wider workforce 
  2. Recognised benchmarks for the wider public health workforce 
  3. Recognition of the work they do and impact they have  
  4. Better routes in, packages of training and pathways for the WPHW 

We believe that having developed a clearer and more realistic estimate of the numbers of people working within the wider public health workforce as well as having identified specific occupations, and sectors to work with and support will enable us to tailor, target and refine our support for the wider public health workforce. 

If you are interested in this work or would like to work with us, please do get in touch.