When a lone terrorist attacked the Palace of Westminster in March, the whole country was reminded of the courage and dedication of its emergency services, not least ambulance crews, a number of whom rushed to the scene to assist victims of the attack.
But like many people in the health service, ambulance staff themselves can be vulnerable and in need of protection and care.
UNISON health conference vowed to protect them after delegates heard about the stresses and demands that are forcing ambulance staff to quit their jobs, or in some cases take their own lives.
“The working life of someone in the ambulance service is never easy,” said Jo Fowles, vice chair of the union’s ambulance committee. But I have worked in frontline emergency services for 20 years and have noticed a massive increase in the strain on colleagues.
“Shifts of 13 to15 hours are the norm. The constant changes to clinical practice make it almost impossible to stay on top of skills. The proper equipment is often missing from ambulances. Annual leave is a lottery.
“On top of all that, there is the mental impact of dealing with some awful jobs, such as terrorist attacks and children’s deaths.”
The result is that some ambulance staff were choosing to leave the service for what they perceived to be less stressful areas of the NHS. Ms Fowles said that a friend had recently resigned – saying to her: “I just can’t do it any more” – and comparatively recent recruits are already “burnt out”.
And she knew of three ambulance staff members who had committed suicide in recent years.
Peter Steventon, of the South East Coast Ambulance Service, said that numerous cuts across the NHS – such as ward and hospital closures and the need to transport patients longer distances – all affected ambulance staff, who were “breaking under the strain.”
And he added: “The number one reason for sick leave is stress.”
UNISON has been at the forefront of negotiations around the retention of ambulance staff for the past two years, highlighting the issues that are driving them to leave the job they love.
The union has welcomed a joint initiative to look at the mental and physical well-being of ambulance workers, conducted by the National Ambulance Strategic Partnership Forum in England.
And the Liverpool delegates approved a motion that seeks to deliver “genuine change”.
- engage with the partnership forum and similar groups in the devolved nations;
- campaign for a better balance between ambulance performance and staff wellbeing;
- improve engagement with all staff in the UK ambulance services;
- campaign against increases to retirement age;
- assist ambulance branches to win commitments and local investment to enable improvements for the workforce.