NHS workers are doing the best they can, but their jobs are becoming impossible

Increases in workload as a result of job cuts are having a negative impact on patients' care


In the run up to the General Election, every few weeks Left Foot Forward will take a look back at the coalition’s record on a specific policy area. This week we focus on the NHS, and each day we will feature a piece that looks back at the impact of coalition policies on the health service over the past five years. The following is from Christine McAnea, head of health at UNISON.

The NHS is struggling. Every day the newspaper headlines tell a new version of the same story – waiting lists growing, staff leaving, services being cut.

Yet these headlines come as no surprise for UNISON’s members working in the NHS. They have seen their workloads increase, their colleagues’ jobs cut or left unfilled and the value of their pay dropping consistently each year.

No one goes into nursing or portering or hospital catering or to be an occupational therapist expecting to be rich. The staff working in these and countless other jobs within the NHS do it because they believe they can make a difference to the health and well-being of patients.

But what these staff do expect is to earn enough money to live on, to see their hard work recognised and rewarded, and to be able to pay their bills each month – without having to worry how they will afford to buy food.

This is not what staff are getting though. Approximately 77,000 NHS staff do not earn the living wage. We know that some of our members have had to use food banks to feed their families or have had to resort to using payday lenders just to get through the month. These are people with full-time, often physically demanding jobs, who do not earn enough to live on.

It is simply not acceptable. NHS staff work for an organisation whose aim is to improve the health and well-being of patients, yet the government, with its continual cuts and pressure on the service, is forcing health workers into poverty.

Staff have had to face the increasing cost of water, heating, transport, food and rent.

Yet staff have not only been hit with these pay cuts but they are also being asked to do more when they come to work.

In UNISON’s pay survey of its members, over 50 per cent of NHS workers said their workplace was ‘frequently’ short-staffed. So staff are frequently having to cover the workloads of unfilled or uncovered posts.

What’s more, NHS workers said that increases in their workload, usually as a result of job cuts or staff shortages, were having an impact on the quality of care that they were able to give to patients.

Patient care and safety is an increasingly growing concern among the electorate, yet the government is doing nothing to address the shortages of staff.

NHS trusts are increasingly relying on bank and agency staff to plug staffing gaps – using up even more of the NHS’s dwindling resources.

Following the imposition of a two-year pay freeze on 60 per cent of NHS staff last year, UNISON members alongside other trade union colleagues in the NHS decided they had had enough. They could no longer cope with the lack of recognition for their increasingly difficult jobs.

NHS workers took two days of strike action – the first time in 32 years that NHS staff had taken industrial action over pay.

It was only with the threat of further strike action looming last month that the government was forced to come to the negotiating table and finally produced an improved pay offer that NHS workers must now decide whether to accept or reject.

The offer falls short of what NHS staff deserve, but it does address some of the key concerns that unions have about low pay and those on the lowest pay bands will receive an improved pay rise. It also gives some additional concessions for ambulance staff who face unprecedented demands for their services.

However, the pay offer stops just short of bringing all staff up to the level of the living wage, and whether NHS staff choose to accept or reject this offer, it’s simply the first step in UNISON’s campaign for fair pay for all NHS staff.

Christina McAnea is head of health at UNISON. Follow her on Twitter

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