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It’s time to end the attack on nurses’ pay

If you ask any nurse why they chose this profession it is unlikely they will say it was because of the pay. They will almost certainly say they wanted to make a difference or give something back to society. Put simply, you can almost guarantee that they are not ‘in it for the money’.

However, dissatisfaction about pay is growing among nurses and healthcare assistants. Nursing consistently lags behind other graduate professions in terms of starting salaries and career lifetime earnings prospects.

Picture credit: Neil O’Connor

Five years of pay restraint means that 53% of nurses now say they have to work extra hours just to pay the bills. And they are increasingly having to borrow money or take on other jobs to make ends meet. At the same time short staffing and heavy workloads mean that nursing staff are working harder than ever.

There is a growing reluctance among nursing staff to recommend the profession as a career, particularly to their own family members. Work pressures, time spent on non-nursing duties, and balancing work and home all play a part. But increasingly nurses are feeling that their take-home pay does not adequately reflect their responsibilities, technical skills or the long hours they work.

They feel undervalued and demoralised, particularly considering the excess hours they frequently work at the end of busy shifts, which more often than not are unpaid.

They see other graduates starting on higher salaries in roles that often involve fewer responsibilities and complexities. Feeling undervalued or even unvalued is bound to affect how nurses feel about the profession.

There is a severe recruitment and retention problem in the health service, but unlike other situations when demand exceeds supply, the market has not reacted. Pay has gone down in real terms, not up.

We all know the government will say the economic situation and the state of NHS finances require restraint, otherwise jobs will have to go. This is illogical. Trusts are struggling to recruit and retain enough nursing staff to provide safe patient care. Attacking pay and conditions will simply make this even harder, and it is patients who will suffer as a result.

Out of touch

Furthermore, the government’s priorities are not in line with those of the British public. A new survey commissioned by the RCN (see box) shows that 63% of adults in Britain believe that nurses are not paid a fair salary for the work they do, considering the long hours they work and the demanding nature of their jobs.

The pay cap vs public opinion

Nursing pay has fallen behind the cost of living since 2010.

In its first budget after the election, the government capped public sector pay increases at 1% for a further four years. This means nursing staff continue to be worse off in real terms, forcing many to consider quitting, says the RCN.

The RCN commissioned a survey by ComRes of public opinion on nurses’ pay and roles, involving 2,014 adults in Britain and conducted online from October 30-November 1.

The survey found that, despite government claims about affordability, only 22% of the public believe there is not enough money to pay nurses more.

Only 13% agree that nurses’ current salaries reflect the level of skills needed for the job, the survey found.

More than half (57%) believe the UK can afford to improve nurses’ pay.

76% believe that nurses are paid too little.

Close to half (46%) would be willing to pay extra in income tax to go directly towards nurses’ salaries.

They also do not believe the government’s assertion that they cannot afford to improve nurse pay. In fact, 46% would be prepared to pay extra in tax if it went directly to increasing nurses’ salaries. So why is the government so out of touch with the public on this issue?

In my view, it is partly because nursing is predominantly a female profession and caring is not considered vital to the economy. Modern nursing is challenging and complex, and this survey shows that there is still some work for us to do in raising awareness of the vast range of responsibilities that nursing staff have.

We need everyone to know that modern nursing is demanding and highly skilled. We need everyone to know that nurses are responsible for checking up on patients at home, planning staffing levels on wards, managing complex trauma patients and planning discharge from hospitals.

And ‘everyone’ includes the government. It’s time that nurses were valued. It’s time to make sure that they count.

‘Nurses will be touched by the public’s overwhelming support and confidence in them’

Responding to the survey on public perceptions of nurses, RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies said: ‘Nursing staff are increasingly demoralised. For too long they have been told that there is not enough money to pay a fair wage to NHS staff, and they have seen their living standards drop as a result.

‘Restraining pay while demand increases is a false economy, making it harder for the NHS to hold on to the staff it needs, and increasing the expensive reliance on temporary staff.

‘Nursing staff will be pleased and touched by the public’s overwhelming support and confidence in them and their vital work. They would be equally pleased to see the government share the public’s gratitude and appreciation by rethinking their stance on nursing pay. A 1% cap is not the way to show loyal, dedicated nursing staff that they are valued and it needs to be rethought.

‘The consequences of continued short-sightedness on pay will be serious for nurses and patients alike.’

Do you feel undervalued?

Email Nursing Standard at editorial@rcni.com

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