How do we attract and retain NHS nurses?

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The tipping point between nurses entering and leaving the NHS has finally been reached

I worked for the NHS for more than 20 years, and during that time it was hard to ignore that the number of nursing staff on wards was constantly declining. As if this wasn’t problem enough, the number of patients needing healthcare was increasing while budgets were being severely stripped back.

When I first trained as a nurse all those years ago all I wanted to do was nurse (this is all any nurse wants to do). Back then we were actually treated as part of the ward staff, providing often lifesaving care. And we were paid during our training.

But from the 1970s onwards times have changed quite dramatically. Over the years government after government, along with nursing authorities, have remodelled nursing roles and the training they are given on numerous occasions. It’s almost unrecognisable from my days in the profession. These changes seem to have always been to the detriment of the nurse and the care they are able to give. The pressure on staff has grown year-on-year for a very long time, and it can’t continue.

Stress-related illness, the need for nurses to work long hours to fill in for sick colleagues, and the loss of qualified staff is only adding to employee discontent. The workloads that nurses are now having to deal with are phenomenal. Being a nurse is no longer just about caring for patients; it’s also contending with mountains of paperwork while battling with severely stretched resources. Of course this paperwork needs to be completed, but it reduces valuable time spent with patients.

Nurses working within the NHS will often find themselves saying 'I never have enough time to actually be with patients anymore.' They are frequently expected to care for more patients than their time allows them to. It’s not a sustainable way of working, and something has to give sooner or later.

So what needs to be done to keep more nurses within our NHS?

The only way this will ever improve is if more nurses are employed, therefore reducing pressure on resources, lowering sickness levels and increasing job satisfaction.

We’re seeing thousands of experienced nurses leaving the NHS, and many also leaving the profession completely. Yet the government is introducing even more changes to nursing education. For instance, let’s look at the apprenticeship scheme that is now being introduced. Surely this will attract more people to the sector? Actually it merely assists in getting people to work on wards for a low wage; and these nurses are unqualified until the apprenticeship has been completed. This can take up to four years. Clearly this will not alleviate the current shortage of qualified nursing staff on the wards.

The government must address the staffing crisis and do all it can to keep our nurses where they belong – on hospital wards caring for patients like they intended when they underwent their training.

If conditions don’t improve we’re likely to read more stories about nurses leaving the NHS. It’s not difficult to see why so many are opting to work in the private sector or are taking up a different career altogether. The NHS no longer offers the job satisfaction it once did, while the private sector appears to be a much brighter future with better job prospects.

When is the government going to take notice that serious change is needed to protect our much-loved health service?

Michael Campbell is a nurse analyst at Fletchers Solicitors

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