NURSES' LIFE SUPPORT FOR NATION'SICK NHS; Service Surviving on Staff Goodwill, Say RCN Chiefs
Byline: MADELEINE BRINDLEY
NURSES are propping up the NHS by missing breaks and mealtimes and working up to five hours' unpaid overtime a week.
Nursing leaders today raised serious concerns about patient safety as four out of five nurses said staffing levels in their area of work are low.
A survey for the Royal College of Nursing revealed 95% of nurses work more than their contracted hours to ensure patients are cared for.
And one in five said they work overtime every shift - nurses in Wales are doing an average of 3.4 extra unpaid hours a week.
The survey, published today ahead of the start of the RCN's annual Congress, comes amid concerns about the impact of recruitment freezes imposed by cash-strapped health boards.
Nurses have told Wales on Sunday how senior and experienced colleagues' jobs are not being filled when they leave or they are being replaced by less-qualified nurses.
And, in some cases, health boards, which are trying to bridge multi-million pound funding gaps in their budgets, are not covering maternity leave.
Tina Donnelly, director of the Royal College of Nursing in Wales, said: "Band five nurses in Wales work an average of 3.4 extra unpaid hours every week.
"This means the NHS is provided with an extra 36,360 nursing hours a week for free - the equivalent of an extra 970 full-time nurses."
The RCN's survey of 2,000 nurses around the UK found 22% said they worked more than their contracted hours at every shift.
The findings follow an earlier piece of work by the RCN which revealed many nurses said they felt they are too busy to provide the standard of care they would like.
Only 17% said staffing levels at their place of work were quite good or very good. One in four said they provided last minute cover for absentee staff at least fortnightly.
Today's survey also revealed that, in the last six months, one in five nurses said they spent a week or more at work despite feeling too unwell to attend.
Ms Donnelly said: "Nurses' working hours are significant in workforce planning for several reasons.
"Firstly, the average number of hours worked by each nurse determines the volume of care that can be delivered by the nursing workforce as a whole.
"Changes in working patterns that produce a subtle effect on the average full-time equivalent that each nurse represents may have significant workforce planning implications.
"Secondly, for individual nurses, control over working hours contribute significantly to overall quality of work life and is consistently cited as a major reason for leaving NHS employment."
Kate Watkins, acting director of the Welsh NHS Confederation, which represents NHS management, said: "Many of our hospital services are under extreme pressure and we know there are very dedicated staff going above and beyond to care for patients in difficult times.
"The NHS in Wales has recently carried out a survey of all its staff so we will be looking closely at the responses from nurses to see what improvements can be made."
The latest staffing figures for the NHS show there was a slight decrease in the number of nursing, midwifery and health visiting staff - last year there were 28,168 (whole-time equivalent) nurses, midwives and health visitors.
There was a slight increase in the number of healthcare assistants and other support staff employed by NHS Wales.
Professor Marcus Longley, director of the Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care at the University of Glamorgan, said: "When you are in a caring profession there's a sense that it's supposed to be more than just turning up, doing what you're paid for and then going home. …