THEY’RE the ‘angels’ at the heart of the UK election, working gruelling 23-hour days and battling crippling debt as they care for our sick and dying.
But as Boris Johnson vows to employ 50,000 more nurses and Jeremy Corbyn promises a four-day working week which some believe could ‘destroy’ the already stretched NHS, what do Britain’s nurses really think?
For tens of thousands of NHS nurses, the harsh reality of life has taken a devastating toll, leaving them suffering with anxiety, depression, burnouts – and even marriage breakdowns.
Shock official figures last year showed that stressed nurses took nearly one million days off sick with mental health problems in just eight months and revealed chronic staff shortages.
So it’s no wonder Apprentice star Claude Littner recently sparked outrage by saying hard-up nurses who want to earn a better living should work more or find a second job.
Here, after Mr Johnson promised ‘the biggest ever cash boost to the NHS’ if voters keep him in No 10, four nurses reveal the struggles they currently face on a normal day at work.
‘I worked 23 hours straight juggling two jobs’
Single mum Sarah Holdway, 35, has five children and lives in Hull.
Sarah says: “I wanted to be a nurse to help people – but it nearly cost me my life.
I grew up in care and didn’t have parents to fall back on, so when I went into nursing at 19 I had to support myself and find additional paid work.
At the end of every nursing shift, I’d change out of my student nurse uniform and into my care assistant one.
I was working 30 hours a week as a geriatric nurse – tough, physical work which included bathing patients, rolling them over every 15 minutes, changing their bedding and incontinence pads, and cleaning up their poo or bodily fluids.
Then I’d have to work another 30 hours as a carer just to pay my rent and living expenses.
Sometimes I worked 23 hours straight.
For two years, I worked 60-hour weeks, juggling nursing and care assistant work and getting an average of three or four hours sleep a night.
The cracks started showing just before I graduated. One night I got in from work at 10pm, put my takeaway down on the table, and the next thing I knew it was 4pm the next day.
My dinner was still there on the table, I’d slept through two alarms and hadn’t heard my phone ringing either.
A friend was so concerned that she banged on my door to make sure I hadn’t died.
The final straw came on a night shift. It was busy and I was doing 15-minute observations on the ward.
When I went over to one female patient, I lost it and totally blanked out.
I burst into tears in front of the Sister and she realised I was at breaking point. She put me in a taxi home and told me to go off sick.
My GP signed me off for six weeks, but it was a battle to get sick pay.
At the end of the sick leave, I realised I couldn’t do nursing anymore. Juggling two jobs had broken me. And by the time I quit I was £13,500 in debt.
If Corbyn reduces the working week for nurses to four days, it will cripple the NHS.”
‘I got PTSD from the things I saw’
Therapist Aimee Leigh Smith, 37, is a married mum of two who lives in Somerset.
Aimee says: “I worked as a mental health nurse for 17 years. I left because I got Compassion Fatigue – a bit like PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].
The job stress massively impacted on my family life and on my mental health.
Nursing is physically and emotionally draining work. It would have been impossible to get a side-hustle job.
Nurses are on the front line dealing with people in crisis and who are suffering.
We look after them, but no-one trains us to look after ourselves. And if anything goes wrong, we’re held accountable.
The public take out their frustrations on us. Sometimes the things we see and have to deal with can be terrifying.
And when we go off shift we take those images home with us. Working with children made me act differently around my own kids.
I was frightened about what could happen and became very protective of them.
The NHS has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to assaults but it’s still common for nurses to get attacked.
One hospital I worked at closed its A&E at weekends. We were at constant risk from drunks or those high on drugs.
Night shifts are the worst. There is no downtime, staffing is at a minimum, and typically you’re doing the job of two nurses.
Shift work is tough on the body. It means you don’t eat properly, it interferes with your exercise routine and sleep patterns.
I also worked in the community. It was supposed to be a 9-5 job but I’d start at 8am and wouldn’t finish until gone 7pm.
I did eventually go down to part-time and tried to do a second job as a yoga teacher, but it was still too much.
The impact on my life was devastating. One day I came home, literally fell to the side and couldn’t get up again.
If you suffer burnout you can go on holiday and recover – it’s not the same with Compassion Fatigue.
I was proud to be a nurse. I don’t understand why Littner would say ‘get a second job’. To say that means you know nothing about nursing.
As for Corbyn saying he’d reduce the working week to four days for nurses, that will just make the crisis worse.
How will they plug the gap considering we’re desperately short of staff as it is?
We need more nurses, not less hours. The stress is from lack of nurses and lack of resources – not working too many hours.”
‘I’d go to patients’ funerals on my days off’
Mandy Worsley, 47, is a married mum of two and lives in Bolton, Lancashire.
Mandy says: “As soon as I qualified, I started work in a children’s hospital. For 18 months, in my 20s, I worked 40 hours a week in children’s intensive care.
I had to cope with caring for dying children and comforting their parents.
Sometimes, I’d take parents down to see their son or daughter who had recently passed. How could I then walk out at 8pm and do a shift behind the bar in a pub?
On my days off, I’d often go to a child’s funeral. You have to have a mental break from those situations. You’ve got to go home and process the emotions.
When the kids came along I went part-time. I wouldn’t have got to see them otherwise.
But working part-time in the community meant doing a full-time job without the pay.
I was in child protection and it was stressful. Endless paperwork meant I was behind a desk when as a nurse I should have been seeing children.
One child died by suicide. I remember anxiously going through my notes to see if there was anything I could have done.
I had a panic attack in one meeting and ended up off work with stress.
Eventually, I quit the NHS after 26 years because my mental and emotional health was in tatters.
I’d love this man to work as a week for a nurse. He would take those comments back.”
‘The stress of nursing destroyed my marriage’
Ruth Parsons, 43, is a mum of three and lives in Bristol.
Ruth says: “In 2006, I became an acute nurse in a hospital A&E. Working in the NHS, the pressure was intense.
When I began my nursing career, I was married with three children.
My relationship with my husband struggled under pressure from my shift patterns and the long hours I had to work.
We rarely had holidays and certainly couldn’t afford to go abroad, and I often missed Christmas with the family because I couldn’t get the time off.
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The lack of sleep and constant juggling of our family life eventually led to the breakdown of our marriage.
It just wasn’t realistic to have a second job. When I was working a 14-hour shift I would get home, take the children to school, sleep, pick them up, do the housework, prepare meals and run the home.
It was exhausting. Where would I have fitted another job in?”
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