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Stressed staff 'paying price' for keeping NHS afloat

Nearly one in three NHS staff have been off with stress
Nearly one in three NHS staff have been off with stress
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Stressed-out hospital staff say they are working extra hours to help plug the gaps in an overstretched NHS.

Results of the NHS’s largest annual staff survey have laid bare the pressures facing health sector workers.

More than two-thirds of workers at Lancashire Teaching Hospitals (LTH) in Preston and Chorley said they are working extra hours, either paid or unpaid. And more than a third say they have been unwell through work-related stress.

The results have prompted a unions and staff representatives to emphasise that workers are paying a personal price for their levels of dedication.

Trust bosses have said efforts are ongoing to improve health and wellbeing among their staff as a result of feedback.

Christina McAnea, the assistant general secretary of Unison, the union representing many health workers said: “Staff are the backbone of the NHS. Their hard work and dedication, often in challenging circumstances, is quite frankly keeping the NHS afloat.

“While health workers might be our heroes, they’re not super humans. High vacancy rates mean there’s frequently too few of them to do all the tasks required so they regularly stay late, because they care about patients and want to get the job done.

“But endless unpaid overtime and excessively long working days don’t make for healthy employees.

“As the stress gets the better of them and they inevitably fall ill, many persist on going in, fearful that if they don’t they’ll be letting overworked colleagues and their patients down.”

The survey also revealed 51 per cent said they had gone to work while unwell because they felt either self-imposed or external pressure.

Meanwhile, just under a quarter of respondents said they had faced bullying or harassment from patients or members of the public.

Bosses at LTH – which operates Royal Preston, Chorley and Leyland hospitals – said initiatives are in place to promote health and wellbeing among staff. They added the survey results had identified several positive aspects of work within the trust.

And respondents gave an improved score to the question of whether they would recommend the organisation as a place to work or receive treatment.

Karen Swindley, workforce and education director at LTH, said: “We are pleased that the percentage of staff who would recommend our hospitals both as a place to work and to receive care has increased since last year, and overall our results are in line with the national picture.

“Following last year’s staff survey we held a Big Conversations scheme with staff to better understand what changes we needed to make to improve their working lives. As a result we have invested in a staff health and wellbeing programme, including providing mindfulness, mental health first aid, counselling, traumatic incident support as well as a range of activities to improve physical and mental wellness.

“Our violence and aggression towards staff policy has recently been revised, and we have introduced learning disability and mental health specialist nurses on our wards to support staff to manage challenging behaviour. We have introduced Our People awards to celebrate staff achievement and share good practice throughout the organisation, and have developed core management skills training for all line managers.

“This year’s Big Conversations are now underway as we seek to learn what else we can do to make this a great place to work.”

The survey is open to 1.1m people working for the NHS. A vast majority expressed that their work at the hospital was important with 89 per cent saying that they felt their role makes a difference to patients.

However, the findings also reveal that 32 per cent of staff had witnessed a “potentially harmful error or so called near miss in the month prior to taking the survey”, above the national rate for such incidents and a small rise from 30 per cent the previous year.

Ms McAnea added: “NHS staff are under incredible pressure, yet they can’t crumble. Even though they may experience bullying from equally fraught colleagues or managers, and suffer rudeness or worse from difficult relatives or patients, they keep going.”

View from the ground

Steve Turner of Unite the union and a member of the Save Chorley Hospital campaign group, said: “Stress in the workplace and the amount of pressure staff are under is incredible especially given the changes to the NHS.

“We are seeing nurses having to access food banks and staff having not had a pay rise for a number of years.

“The NHS is in a state of chaos at the moment because of this government and the burden is being felt by staff.

“It’s no secret that the NHS is under pressure and under funded and the plan B for the government is to out-source services to the private sector and this causes uncertainty for staff.

“We have seen A&E departments closed and what the NHS needs at this time is stability.”

Neil Cosgrove, branch secretary of Unite and NWAS paramedic, said: “Sometimes the hours staff are putting in are astronomical but it’s just pressure, pressure, pressure all the time with more work being put on them.”

Maria Moss is the Unison regional organiser for Lancashire Health. She said: “From our perspective the NHS is struggling to cope and we know that from member’s perspective.

“Unison is working with the trust - because this year’s figures and very similar to the previous year - and we need to ensure there is support for staff.

“But the situation is we know that everyone is working as hard as they can and the government needs to start to act rather than just speak about the NHS.”

She added that the union is aware the trust has its own constraints especially in terms of funding but further work can be done to help staff. Unison head of health Sara Gorton said: “It’s clear that wage freezes, and woeful pay rises below the rate of inflation, have taken their toll on NHS staff.

“If this isn’t addressed, the NHS is going to haemorrhage more staff. This puts further pressure on NHS colleagues, and also ultimately affects patient care and safety.”

Case study

One staff member said colleagues were being placed under “horrendous” amounts of pressure and services across the NHS had been “cut to the bone.”

They said staff have the opportunity to address concerns directly to the chief executive via the trust’s intranet system but that a “positive slant” is often placed on feedback. They added: “Nothing happens (after the results of the surveys are published), so it results in disgruntled staff. And they have cut staff back to the bare bones. It can be demoralising when managers come down hard, the pressure is unrelenting.”

They also said parking issues at Royal Preston Hospital add to stress levels with some colleagues not able to park on site at certain times.

The trust has submitted plans to expand one of its car parks and a scheme to create a multi-storey facility, approved in 2014, remains a possibility.