By April Whitworth
In the UK, the last couple of months has seen nurses all across the country join the picket lines seeking a 19% pay rise. This rise would help protect nurses during the cost of living crisis as well as improve patient safety by alleviating chronic understaffing.
The Royal College of Nursing Union (RCN) collected the votes of their members in November, and the results were in favour of industrial action which began in December 2022. Strikes are continuing into this month, but when they end is all dependent on how and when the government responds. In theory, though, strikes could continue until May, as the RCN’s mandate to strike is valid for six months after the ballot.
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Right wing media outlets and, consequently, significant swathes of the population, are sceptical of these strikes. But popular opinion is shaped not only by newspapers, but also through the media. The Summers and Summers book, ‘Saving Lives’, analyses the widespread influence of TV shows on people’s (mis)perceptions of nurses. Take Holby City or Casualty for example: these regularly distort the role of nurses within a hospital.
During my conversation with a London ICU sister (who has been named Olivia for anonymity purposes), she highlighted that “a lot of ‘doctor’ jobs in these shows are actually carried out by nurses in real life”. Therefore, these mechanisms through which culture is transmitted have real power to tangibly shape social attitudes on nurses and their value, despite often not being factually correct.
This is shown in the recent YouGov poll which shows that a significant proportion of the population aren’t even in support of nurses being able to strike at all. It is clear that age is a factor in this: 56% of over 65s think they shouldn’t be able to, in comparison with only 32% of 18-24 year olds. Fundamentally, there is a lack of empathy residing within these views: if you understand the pressures and motivations as to why nurses are striking, I personally think there is no choice but to stand by them.
Why Are Nurses Striking
There are structural factors, as well as short-term ones, which feed into the frustration of nurses.
Underpay is the factor which underlies all of the grievances, because underpay = under appreciation in a capitalist society. As Olivia highlighted: “I knew nursing wasn’t going to be a job which ends in riches, but I didn’t think I’d be worrying about paying the bills and going deep into my overdraft every month”. Nurses, on average, have seen their earnings fall 5% in real terms in the past decade. As a result, nearly 1 in 5 nurses are using food banks. In such an economically prosperous nation, it is an embarrassment that our nurses, an integral element of our glorious NHS, are being pushed into poverty before our eyes.
This is why the 19% pay rise must be granted by the government: although it seems to people to be a high figure, this is just scratching the surface of the detrimental impact of the last couple of decades of the consistent low pay in the face of rising inflation.
The number of nurses is quickly plummeting as a result of this pay cut. Olivia highlighted that she’s seen numerous of her talented and experienced colleagues leaving the sector to find alternative jobs which pay the bills and value the wide range of skills which are developed through being a nurse. Thus, this strike is also driven by concerns of patient safety. Currently, there are 46,000 nursing positions unfilled, and in a ‘worse-case’ scenario, there could be a shortfall of 140,000 nurses by 2030, as discovered by the Health Foundation’s predictions.
79% of nurses already feel that there isn’t enough staff to provide efficient care. In theory, nurses in ICU should be looking after one patient, due to their vulnerable state. However, Olivia revealed that in the height of the pandemic, she was looking after up to four or five patients at once, and thus doing the job of four/five nurses. Yet, where was the pay to reflect this? Nowhere to be seen. This would not be tolerated in any other industry.
The financial stress of living in a cost of living crisis has been exacerbated by the mental health ramifications of overworking during the pandemic. The wellbeing of the nurses (the ones who haven’t already left for other professions) is in shreds. Post-pandemic, more and more nurses are being diagnosed with PTSD after the sheer trauma they experienced post March 2020.
Sadly these mental health issues aren’t just pandemic-specific but have been influencing nurses wellbeing long before COVID-19 (and will continue to if nothing changes). Terrifyingly, the rate of suicide amongst female nurses is 23% higher than in the general female population.
There are many complex factors which likely feed into this significant difference, but I think one to acknowledge, as brought to my attention by Olivia, is the physically demanding schedule of nurses. Night shifts have, and always will have, a real and felt impact on nurses’ lives. The anti-social nature of these shift patterns mean, from a wellbeing perspective, there is limited time which can be spent with loved ones, which inevitably has an impact on happiness.
This detriment is the same when it comes to physical health: due to the disruption to circadian rhythms, night shifts increase the likelihood of a whole host of conditions and illnesses, which all contribute to a reduced life expectancy. Nurses are literally shaving away months, potentially years, off their lives to help other people, but they can’t even be paid properly.
Something needs to dramatically switch in order to improve the living conditions, socioeconomic status and wellbeing of nurses. It is paramount that not only the 19% pay rise is granted by the government, but the nursing bursary is reintroduced in full. Although technically the bursary was restored in 2020 after being scrapped in 2016, it is nowhere near as generous as its original iteration which came to about £10,000 a year.
Its removal led to a reported 40% drop in student applications and it was reintroduced to boost nursing numbers. However, the interest in nursing has continued to plummet despite the introduction of the new bursary. The bottom line is that the more staff that are retrieved through better pay and bursaries, will contribute to improved working conditions for NHS workers: for example, night shifts won’t regularly fall on the same people, reducing the likelihood of poor health as a result. When it comes to improving wellbeing, the government must provide better mental health resources for nurses. Practiced in tandem these solutions will help to make nursing an attractive career and consequently improve patient safety.
Clapping for our carers is a nice gesture, but if you aren’t in support of a pay rise for nurses, then this appreciation is redundant. You never know when a nurse might save your life. So, I’ll ask the question again: if nurses are too important to strike, surely they are important enough to pay?
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