Sixty UNISON delegates from across the nursing family gathered in Warwick this week for the safe staffing forum. UNISON has been leading on safe staffing in the health sector for the past decade.
UNISON national officer for nursing Stuart Tuckwood opened the day of talks and working groups, by stating: “We’re only going to be able to achieve victories if we work together.”
Delegates heard research on safe staffing ratios from Peter Griffiths of the University of Southampton, which found that increasing the number of patients to nurses has negative outcomes for patient safety.
Latest figures show that in England, there are currently 39,000 nurse vacancies.
UNISON vice president James Anthony highlighted the challenges for student nurses: “One of the big things that get lost when staff don’t have time is our ability to support student nurses.”
Joy O’Gorman, a student nurse from Plymouth, has first-hand experience of how staffing shortages have affected her training.
“The nurses that are overworked and stressed just do not have the headspace to be able to give you the training and support that you need,” she said. “While some nurses are fantastic at it and will make that time, it’s hard when a burnt-out nurse has to give you her time when she can barely cope through her own shift herself. It’s a big ask.”
Stacie May, who is due to qualify as a nurse in 18 months, told the forum: “When we go into placement, other nurses tell us, ‘You’re mad trying to be a nurse now’. Training to be a nurse now, there’s added responsibility, added pressures, not enough time, not enough nurses.
“They tell us that before, when you trained you looked after patients. Now it’s more about paperwork. You’re coming in for very short-staffed shifts. Anyone who doesn’t really care about the work would be put off”.
Joy O’Gorman, Monica Tong and Stacie May
Ms O’Gorman said she found the forum to be a valuable, nourishing space.
“Coming to an event like this is really empowering, because when you’re a student nurse, and you go out on placements, you feel quite isolated and alone. And although you bond with people, it’s very short term.
“Coming to a conference like this where there are nurses from the wider nursing family, as well as student nurses, you realise there’s a collective voice that you’re a part of. And when you open your mouth you’re not a lone voice, you’ve got a lot of backing behind you and a strength from that.”
Mark Maynard is a UNISON branch secretary for South London and Maudsley, a specialist mental health trust. He is representing members go through a restructure that’s driven by recruitment.
“The mental health services in the NHS are second-tier. We are the forgotten side of the NHS,” he said. “There’s hype and attention on staffing numbers for student nurses and hospitals, but we see the same issues in mental health.”
He continued: “Right now, my members are undergoing a consultation on changing staffing numbers on wards. Management are proposing to reduce the number of band six mental health nurses on the wards, who are part of the emergency and duty senior nurse teams, and want to relocate them around the organisation.
“This change affects almost exclusively black members, because the vast majority of staff are black and most of management are white.”
And he added: “I’ve seen mental health staff become patients, because of the pressures of the job and the strain they’re under.”
As well as learning about the latest statistics on safe staffing, delegates heard from the Australian safe staffing campaign and had the opportunity to network together. The atmosphere was brewing with ideas, community and power and a shared motivation to keep healthcare staffing safe, by whatever means necessary.