Making ends meet: a nurse in London

After a stressful day on the wards, staff nurse Helen Oliver has a different pressure to contend with – the bills

Helen Oliver fell in love with London on a school trip and decided she wanted to live there some day. Now a newly qualified staff nurse, her dream has come true.

But moving to London from her home town of Oldbury in the West Midlands was something of a culture shock.

Helen lived with her parents while doing her nursing training in Birmingham and saved up a deposit for accommodation and the first month’s rent. But she is now paying as much for a room in a shared house in London as her friend is paying for a whole house in the West Midlands.

She is living alone for the first time, and dealing with a high pressure job. Her acute surgical and trauma unit treats car accident survivors, victims of stabbings and shootings and those who have attempted suicide. It is the crucial stop between intensive care and the general ward.

The physical injuries are traumatic enough to deal with, but working on an acute ward means dealing with the patients’ fear, anger and depression as well.

“It is an extremely stressful job,” Helen says, “but you have to find a mechanism to cope with it. You have to switch off or it could easily eat you up.”

Balancing a tight budget

And when she comes off duty, she finds that rather than sitting back and enjoying life, she is constantly worrying about her finances, and juggling her salary to make sure she doesn’t overspend on a tight budget.

Shifts are from 7.30am to 8.15pm, or 7.30pm to 8.15am, with one and a half hours break. There is regular weekend working. Helen works three or four shifts a week and sometimes the hours will be longer.

As a young woman living in London for the first time, it was very important for Helen to feel safe coming home late at night and early in the morning, after finishing her shifts.

Nurses’ accommodation would cost her around £550 a month including bills, but when Helen applied last April nothing was available. There was no key worker accommodation available either.

So she trawled through accommodation she found on websites. Many places were in a poor state and in neighbourhoods that didn’t feel safe. She opted for one that cost more in a better area – leafy East Dulwich – where she could feel safe making the long walk home from work or getting the bus. It’s a period house in a quiet residential street and her housemates are five other young professionals. But the rent takes a large chunk out of her monthly salary.

Helen Oliver, Nurse Helen’s annual pay is   £21,138 with £4,000 extra London allowance. Further “progressive pay” comes after a year and there are extras for night and weekend shifts. She pays £650 a month in rent and is paying back £100 a month on her student loan – she took a degree in sociology and psychology before training to be a nurse. £35 goes on pet insurance for her beloved black Labrador Charlie back home and £90 is taken up with past and present mobile phones. Helen ringfences £5 a month for her favourite guide dog charity, £35 goes on water and council tax, £20 on gas and electric, although this is much higher in winter months, and £5 on broadband.

She spends up to £100 a month on food, looking out for economy brands and sale items. The local charity shops are now her favoured place for clothes shopping. When visiting her family, she opts for a £10 return coach fare and she gets by on £15 a week for her London travel costs if she uses the bus and walks. Taking lunch to work also saves some pennies. £200 a month goes on her social life. Her lifestyle isn’t exactly lavish – she unwinds by going out with her housemates and UNISON friends (she has just been elected chair of the union’s national Young Members Forum) and playing tennis on the free local municipal courts. But the price of eating or drinking out is considerably higher than back home.

Learning curve

Getting used to all of this made for a huge learning curve when she first moved to London in May.

“I had to do a lot of soul searching,” Helen says, “there were a lot of phone calls to my mum.”

Her bedroom is light and airy and filled with photos of her friends and family and dog. A quilt that her Mum had made when she was 18 lies on the bed. It’s a typical young woman’s room with a stack of shoes by the door and DVDs on the shelf. Having somewhere calm to come home to, in a quiet family neighbourhood, is essential to her after a shift on the trauma unit.

“I have had days when I have got to the end of the day and burst into tears because of the pressure,” Helen admits, “Other days have been brilliant – no two days are the same. How you deal with it makes who you are.”

But however much she loves the job, sometimes, and is excited to be living the dream in the capital, she cannot imagine making a life here permanently.

The cost of living would stop her staying in the long term.

“I do not think you could settle down and raise a family here. It would cost too much money. For me, it is something to do when you are younger.”

Generally, she thinks nurses are undervalued. “You work your socks off from the moment you walk in the door to the moment you go home. You can go for seven hours without having time to go to the toilet. More frontline staff need to be employed as we deliver the care.”

She believes nurses are simply not paid enough. “At the end of the day, people’s lives are in our hands.”

Anne Dixey

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2013 issue of U magazine