Health workers and activists on the brink

UNISON health conference is told: ‘Everyone in this room is carrying the trauma of the last three years’

Delegates at UNISON’s health conference in Bournemouth this week shared harrowing experiences of how they and their fellow members are suffering the mental toll of their duties and workplace experiences, through and beyond the pandemic.

The persistent theme was of a workforce hellbent on protecting the public – and, in the case of activists, protecting their fellow members – while paying the price in their own deteriorating health and wellbeing.

Martin McKay, of Scotland region, summed up a health crisis within the health service, when he said: “Everyone in this room is carrying the trauma of the last three years. It’s important we learn from that shared experience.”

Numerous motions charted the different mental health pressures that UNISON health members are under.

A familiar one was on ambulance staff, who delegates heard were experiencing “unrelenting stress”, not just from the increasing pressure caused by underfunding and the longest waiting times ever recorded, but also the frustration felt by crews “who want to do their very best for patients, but cannot because it is out of their control.”

One member spoke of “the devastating affect on staff on the ground. Mental health is through the floor.”

The result is work-related anxiety spilling over to the rest of their lives and record numbers of ambulance staff leaving the service.

As Jo Fowles (above) of South West Ambulance branch put it: “The escalating pressure is taking a terrible toll on many at work. It means that large numbers of staff are voting with their feet and saying ‘enough is enough’.

“Many parts of the service are already badly understaffed, so we can’t afford to lose any more workforce. In my trust, at one stage we were experiencing 30 resignations a month, an average of one a day. And we can’t replace those people, because recruitment is also a problem.”

This affected all four of the UK nations, she said, with the need to “ratchet up the pressure on politicians to end the crisis and fund our NHS service properly.”

Another motion spoke of the mental health illness of Black staff in the NHS, for whom experiences of racism, discrimination and inequity, and the difficulties experienced by overseas workers when relocating to the UK, all add to the pressures on psychological wellbeing.

These issues were compounded by the lack of understanding and culturally aware care shown towards Black members suffering from mental illness.

Mr McKay (above) proposed the motion ‘supporting NHS workers who experience declining mental health’, which noted that the last few years have shown an increasing deterioration in the mental health of workers in public services, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Increasing levels of stress in workplaces can lead to workers developing PTSD, unless they receive timely and appropriate support, the motion said.

In October 2022, for example, NHS Lothian reported that more than half (52%) of the board’s sickness absence was due to anxiety, stress, depression or other psychiatric illness.

At the same time, the motion noted that LGBT+ NHS workers are experiencing poorer work-related wellbeing and struggles with their wider mental and psychological heath – exacerbated for trans, non-binary and gender diverse workers.

The motion calls on the health service group executive to work with other committees to identify areas of good practice for mental health campaigning amongst UNISON branches, and promote those throughout the union; and to work with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland health committee to ensure that health employers understand their responsibilities in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of their staff.

Mr McKay, a mental health nurse for 35 years, hoped that the motion would guide delegates towards “a new work environment, a mentally healthy workplace, where those who need the most assistance and support, receive that support.”

During a debate on the need for more health and safety officers, conference heard that existing reps “got us through the pandemic. What was already terrible could have been so much worse.”

But, adding a bitter twist to these debates, was the news that UNISON branch officers and activists were suffering themselves, due to the affects of trying to help their members through one national crisis after another.

Proposing the motion ‘Supporting the health and wellbeing of health branch officers and representatives’, Peter McKinlay of Lanarkshire Health branch (above) told delegates: “Being a UNISON activist is not something that you can switch off at the end of your shift or when you log out of your PC. You don’t switch off from difficult conversations that you have with your members, or with managers.

“Sometimes, as activists, you forget to take care of your own mental health,” he continued. “We share the life experiences of our members – and those shared experiences have an adverse effect on activists’ mental health and wellbeing.”

He said that inadequate facility time for activists continued to be a problem, and many were facing burnout.

Ayesha Johnstone, of Northumberland & Tyne & Wear Health branch (above) also spoke of the “unprecedented pressures” on reps.

“It is increasingly difficult for activists to get time off. We must ensure we give activists the full support they need to protect their mental health and wellbeing.”

Images: Jess Hurd