As a predominantly female occupation nursing is going through what can only be described as a crisis under the Conservative government. Many headlines in the popular press describe nurses using food banks and turning to payday loans as their meagre pay won’t cover the bills each month and further misery is on the way as the 1% pay cap on nurses continues. This is coupled with a looming recruitment crisis as the scrapping of bursaries and the introduction of university fees begin to take effect on the number of potential nurses taking up the 3 year degree courses. And lastly the predicament facing the many nurses from the European Union working for the National Health Service for whom the government has not guaranteed the right to remain. I met with a Junior Sister working at a major London hospital to discuss the impact of the current changes on staff moral and working conditions.
Tell me briefly about your role within your hospital…
I completed my 3 years university training to be a nurse 3 and a half years ago. Since qualifying I have worked in different departments including high dependency, surgical and a day-case centre. I now work as a junior sister on a chemotherapy and oncology day unit. In my role I support people suffering from cancer and haematology conditions through their treatment and am registered as a chemotherapy administrator.
There are currently over 24, 000 nursing vacancies in the U.K. according to the Royal College of Nursing. Have you found staff shortages to be a problem in delivering safe care and safe staffing levels?
I am fortunate enough to work with a fantastic team of highly skilled nurses on my unit. But more often than not wards are left short of a full complement of staff, putting patients’ safety at risk. The safety of our patients is paramount when working in a high risk area such as chemotherapy. The nurses I work alongside and the unit managers are vigilant in maintaining safety but this comes at a cost. Patients may be sat waiting for long periods before starting their treatment and I can often feel like I am not able to spend enough time listening to my patients. This makes it difficult for me to be able to offer them the physical and psychological support they need to fight this battle with cancer.
My previous experience of under-staffing when working on a high dependency unit left me feeling completely despondent from my profession. There were shifts where I had 3 times the recommended amount of patients under my care. It’s repeated time again that nurses do not get time to take breaks, eat or even go to the toilet during a shift. As degrading as it may be I will confirm that during a 12.5 hour shift I would not have time to go the toilet, or get the chance to eat a morsel of food until up to 9 hours into the shift.
The effects of this lifestyle causes a rapid rate of turnover of staff which recruitment drives cannot keep up with. Going the extra mile to make our patients feel safe, comfortable and dignified is massively rewarding but unsafe staffing levels in the NHS is making this more and more difficult and driving nurses out of the professional or causing sickness through burnout and stress.
Do you think that the pay cap of 1% is directly affecting the moral of your team?
I love being a nurse in an indescribable way. We certainly didn’t come into this profession for the money but the pay cap is colossal injustice to thousands of healthcare professionals across the National Health Service. As food and everyday goods rise in price with inflation over the last 7 years nurses pay has been capped. Nurses are forced to work extra shifts taking them away from their families, friends and time to recover from such long and gruelling shifts. We are only asking to be paid a wage that correlates to the rising costs of living. If the pay cap is lifted then nurses may not need to undertake extra shifts, working up to 50 hours a week (not including unpaid overtime). In all honesty I don’t really believe this is a coincidence.
With the triggering of Article 50 and the departure of Britain from the European Union how do you feel that has effected recruitment and the rights of European nurses to remain in their posts?
The NHS is dependent on nurses coming in from the EU. There have been statistics of up to 95% less overseas recruitment banded around since the triggering of Article 50. I work with nurses from all over the EU. Some of my friends have already moved back to their home countries because they fear the uncertainty of their future in the United Kingdom. With the recent collapse in the Conservative government leadership that future is bleaker than ever. A clear picture of rights for EU nationals living and working in the United Kingdom is now under prolonged negotiation, depriving many nurses in the NHS of a feeling of security in their profession.
Given the introduction of tuition fees and the scrapping of bursaries for nursing students under this government how will the National Health Service encourage people into the profession?
Nursing and medical science is fascinating and constantly advancing. Becoming a part of a clinical environment comes with interesting trials and keeps you on the cutting edge of science and innovation. I have been given the opportunity through my role to work alongside leaders and specialists in the medical field who are inspiring. I came into nursing through the desire of wanting to help people. I think there will always be people like me who feel it is their vocation to care for people. The National Health Service will struggle to encourage potential nurses into the profession if they are expected to amount debts through training. A nursing degree isn’t like other degrees in that statistically students are likely to be more mature and have families and mortgages to consider when applying for a course. In reality you cannot expect many teenagers to want to care for the sick and the dying so therefore student nurses tend to be older.