More staff are working without breaks, claims RCN

Some nurses working up to 12 hours without a break, food, or even a glass of water
Overworked nurse

Some nurses are working up to 12-hour shifts without a break, food, or in some cases, even a glass of water, according to the RCN

Recent reports of nursing staff missing breaks entirely or being unable to stay hydrated have come from RCN members, reps and through the organisation’s counselling service.

Overworked nurse
Some staff miss breaks completely and even have no time for a glass of water. Picture: John Behets

RCN senior employment relations adviser Kim Sunley said pressures on the NHS were affecting nurses’ well-being as they struggled to find time to meet their basic needs.

‘It has always been an issue, but with the current pressures, it is even worse,’ she said.

‘Missing breaks completely is something we have noticed in the past few months.'

Extreme pressure

Ms Sunley also pointed out it was not only emergency staff affected by these issues.

'Community staff are under extreme pressure as well – caseloads are high and nurses are often driving from place to place without time to rest.

‘Although it is extremely difficult in the current climate, it can affect patient care, if people are not having breaks.

‘It is a safety and well-being issue.’

Ms Sunley said it was crucial that nurses were properly hydrated, ate adequately to keep energy levels up and could have rest breaks away from the work station.

‘Nurses need to be able to look after themselves to look after patients.’

Ms Sunley is leading work on the RCN's Healthy Workplace, Healthy You campaign which offers a free toolkit for organisations to carry out a health check and identify areas of improvement.

Calls for parity

She added that working time regulations make it a legal requirement for employees to take a 20-minute break every six hours and pointed out junior doctors' new contractual arrangments levy fines against the employer if meal breaks are regularly being missed by doctors.

'It is important to see this issue in context to doctors – we need some sort of parity of provision for nurses,' said Ms Sunley.

'There is nothing specific for Agenda for Change [contracts] on mealtimes, but it needs to be somewhere.'

The five key areas in the Healthy Workplace, Health You campaign are:

  • Work-life balance.
  • Dignity at work.
  • Health and safety.
  • Well-defined jobs.
  • Learning and development opportunities.

RCN council member Tracey Budding, who is leading the healthy workplace campaign, said employers must step up to the challenges. 'As we’ve heard over the last week nurses are under more pressure than ever.

'This means it’s all the more important that employers promote a healthy workplace to keep staff safe and happy under what, for many, can be difficult circumstances.'

Trust uses toolkit to improve staff well-being 

Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Gateshead, RCN safety representative Denise McLaughlin worked in partnership with deputy director of workforce Karen O'Brien to tackle stress-related sickness in her workplace with the Healthy Workplace, Healthy You toolkit.

Ms O'Brien said: 'Staff absence due to stress was becoming a major issue in our trust.

'Our health and well-being steering group couldn't identify the root problem but we knew it was something we needed to urgently tackle.

'Using the toolkit, we developed a "fast-track referral process".'

Previously, when a member of staff was off work because of stress, they could be absent for four weeks before their manager referred them to additional support.

The new process meant anyone with a stress-related issue was contacted by the hospital's occupational health team within 24 hours.

Ms O'Brien said: 'As an employer, we have a duty of care to our staff and this change meant we could identify and resolve work-related issues quickly and discreetly.'

Ms McLaughlin added: 'It gave staff the chance to speak to a healthcare professional and receive advice, information about talking therapies, or support in approaching their GP.

'Although it’s not been in place for long, staff have already told me how the new process has given them the confidence to return to work sooner.

'Sickness levels have also decreased, so it’s clearly working.'

The average cost of sickness absence to each NHS organisation stands at about £3.3 million annually, according to 2015 figures from the Health Foundation and Nuffield Trust.

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