‘No breaks, no food’ culture leaving NHS staff hungry and affecting care, says UNISON 

Working long shifts with few or no breaks and little or no food is never acceptable.

Overstretched NHS staff ​often have no time for breaks or food during ​their shifts and ​are worried this ​is affect​ing ​their ability to do their jobs, according to a UNISON survey published today (Wednesday).

More than half (53%) say they are unable to take regular breaks and almost one in six (16%) only have time to grab snacks like crisps or chocolate during busy shifts.

The figures are based on a survey of 8,573 health staff working in hospitals or mental health trusts across the UK. Some (7%) say they never take a break, one in seven (15%) only rarely and ​three in ten (31%) only do sometimes, according to the results.

UNISON says this non-stop work culture has been triggered by intolerable pressures on the NHS ​caused in part by staff shortages and the pandemic-related treatment backlog.

​According to the survey, even those ​health workers who can take a break ​often struggle to find somewhere quiet to unwind. Three in ten (31%) say there is nowhere dedicated for them to go before returning to their shift​s.

More than one in five (23%) say they sit in offices, 17% use their cars, 7% in corridors and 6% visit store cupboards. Others mention sitting at bus stops, in hospital chapels or spending ​their break time searching for free rooms.

Lack of – or poor quality – food on site is another major issue. More than three quarters (78%) of night workers and ​​almost six in ten (59%) of daytime staff say being hungry or thirsty affects the quality of their work at times.

More than a quarter (28%) are unable to eat a healthy meal during shifts, and 19% of these rely on take-outs because there is no on-site facility.

Almost a quarter (24%) say there is no staff restaurant on site. More than half (52%) say they have access to staff canteen that is only open until 8pm.

The quality of the food available was also an issue. More than half (56%) described what was on offer as unsatisfactory, while ​just 34% said it was adequate. ​Only one in ten (10%) judged it to be good.

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “Working long shifts with few or no breaks and little or no food is never acceptable. But the situation is worse for staff when demand on health services is so high.

“Nurses, healthcare assistants and other NHS employees need proper spaces to unwind, not cupboards or corridors. Healthy food should also be available to sustain them during the long hours they work.

“Otherwise, workers will end up quitting for jobs that allow healthier, less stressful lifestyles. Everything possible must be done to end this ‘no breaks, no food’ culture. Staff can then focus on what they do best – providing quality care for patients.”

Notes to editors: 

– A total of 8,573 health workers in hospitals (83%) and mental health trusts (17%) completed the survey between ​Thursday ​14 April and Thursday 21 April ​2022.

– A motion passed at UNISON’s annual health conference in Liverpool in April called for 24-hour breakout spaces that are comfortable and private. It also said hot food should be made available for staff working outside on-site catering hours.

– Comments from health workers who took part in the survey include:
“I work in an operating theatre and, if I do get a lunch break, it’s only 30 minutes at most. This doesn’t leave time to get changed out of scrubs, attend the hospital canteen, queue, eat, get back to work, change and start working again.”
“The food provided at the hospital isn’t great. I only eat healthily when I prepare meals at home. And if I’m too tired from doing shifts, I often don’t have the energy to make food when I get home).”
“I tend to only get one break and load up with as many carbs as I can, and eat cakes and chocolates left by patients.”
“There are no healthy options at night and hot food isn’t available. On night shifts, lots of wards have no staff room. You have to walk to the other side of the hospital to use the microwave.”
“The food dispensing machine has no meals and the canteen is closed. On-site shops close early at weekends and bank holidays so you can’t buy a healthy meal.”
“We have to buy our own microwaves and eating utensils. Water fountains were taken away, no water is allowed at work stations and the canteen is a 10-minute walk. Only dispensing machines with unhealthy choices are available at night.”

– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.