The short, sharp slide into poverty
Growing numbers of nurses who are ‘just about managing’ are forced to ask for financial support when a health or personal crisis hits, suggests the latest evidence.
Growing numbers of nurses who are ‘just about managing’ are being forced to ask for financial support when a health or personal crisis hits, the latest evidence suggests.
When breast cancer treatment stopped mental health nurse Kath Clayson from working for six months, she soon found herself sliding further into debt.
‘I was generally struggling financially and always in my overdraft, even when I had just been paid,’ says Ms Clayson, who lives in Harrogate in North Yorkshire. ‘But when I was off sick it got to the point where I had used my Christmas savings and I had hit the absolute limit on my overdraft.’
Ms Clayson’s experience of struggling from pay day to pay day will be sadly familiar to many nurses. There have been many reports in recent months of qualified nurses and nursing students turning to food banks and seeking emergency funds to survive.
Public services union Unison said last year that NHS staff, including nurses, were turning to payday loan services and pawning their belongings. The RCN is holding a summer of protest against the public sector pay cap that it says has led to a 14% drop in real-terms pay for nurses since 2010.
Just about managing
The Cavell Nurses’ Trust, a charity that supports nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants experiencing personal or financial difficulty, said in July that calls for help in the first six months of the year were up by a third compared with the same period last year.
There were 1,179 enquiries about support in the first half of 2017, compared with 891 in the same period in 2016. Figures for the whole of last year show a 36% increase in enquiries compared with 2015.
Illness is the most common reason for nurses to seek help from the Cavell Nurses’ Trust. Its chairman, Simon Knighton, said many nurses are in the ‘just about managing’ group, dubbed JAMS, until an additional difficulty such as ill health or relationship breakdown tips the balance too far and they can no longer cope financially.
The nurses being helped by the charity are the ‘tip of the iceberg’, he says.
A report published by the trust at the end of 2016 showed that 40% of nurses have a physical or mental health problem expected to last more than a year, suggesting tens of thousands could be struggling with a condition leaving them on the brink of financial penury.
‘I went back to work before I was physically or emotionally able to do so, I had absolutely no option. It has repercussions in the workplace as you are not robust enough’
The report, called Skint: Shaken Yet Still Caring, which is based on a survey of 2,200 nurses, midwives and healthcare assistants, found that nurses are twice as likely as the general public to struggle to pay for basic necessities.
To make a comparison with the general public, it used the 2012 Poverty and Social Exclusion survey on living standards in the UK, which looked at issues such as having a home in a good state of repair, being able to keep it warm, having two pairs of all-weather shoes, being able to replace worn out furniture and being able to save £20 a month.
The Cavell Nurses’ Trust report found the 30-39 age group was struggling most, and older nurses aged 66-74 the least. Greater London and the south east reported the highest levels of hardship.
Ms Clayson, a single mother of three, says having to take sick leave meant she was suddenly reliant on her basic salary. She lost extras such as her travel allowance at a time when she needed to pay for daily journeys to Leeds to receive radiotherapy and cover the cost of extra heating, because she was at home more in the winter. It all led to bills she couldn’t afford to pay.
She was pointed in the direction of the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, but found it difficult to apply for a hardship payment, as she couldn’t believe she was in a position to need one. ‘I felt really guilty applying,’ she says.
Ms Clayson was awarded about £300, which helped her at a time when she had undergone surgery and treatment. ‘It just made the difference and boosted my bank account a little bit,’ she says.
But she had to go back to work after six months as her pay would have been halved if she had remained on sick leave. ‘I went back before I was physically or emotionally able to do so, I had absolutely no option. It has repercussions in the workplace as you are not robust enough,’ she says.
The RCN has reported increasing demand for its Lamplight Support Service, which provides financial assistance for struggling members.
‘A quarter of those who apply for assistance are in full-time work, so it shows they are just really, really pushed’
Applications for hardship grants have tripled in ten years, from 244 in 2006-07 to just over 700 in 2016-17. More than £250,000 was given out by the RCN last year, almost five times the figure a decade ago.
‘A quarter of those who apply for assistance are in full-time work, so it shows they are just really, really pushed,’ says RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin. ‘The main reasons are paying for food, travel, rent or a mortgage. This is not “I want a holiday” or even “I need a new washing machine”, it is basic everyday stuff. It is a fairly bleak outlook.’
The RCN’s most recent employment survey, from 2015, found that 30% of members had struggled to pay utility bills and 14% had skipped meals. Almost one in ten had no pension, mainly because they couldn’t afford the contributions. More than half had worked extra hours to make ends meet.
The college is currently compiling the data for its next employment survey, due to be published in the autumn, and Ms Irwin says it expects the figures on hardship to have worsened after another two years of austerity.
Impact of anxiety
She says it is not surprising that nurses are reporting high levels of ill health: ‘Debt and being in arrears in your mortgage, all that anxiety and worry has an impact on mental and physical health.’
In May, RCN members voted overwhelmingly to take action against the 1% cap on pay rises in the public sector.
As an almost full-time nurse working 32 hours a week and at the top of band 6, Ms Clayson is frustrated at the position she finds herself in.
‘I have to watch every single penny that goes out,’ she says. ‘It absolutely galls and upsets me that I work so hard and carry so much responsibility and risk, and I have to scrimp and save every single month.’
Erin Dean is a freelance health journalist