By Kim Moore, Senior Lecturer in Mental Health

In a landmark decision announced on Sunday 14 May 2017 (Jones, 2016) nurses have voted to take industrial action about their ongoing annual pay cap (sorry pay rise!).  The summer of 2017 is likely to see rolling action, including the potential of industrial strikes, by nursing staff who overwhelmingly voted for action (RCN, 2017).  In real terms pay rates for nurses have been frozen for over the past 7 years, and unlike many parliamentarians, nurses pay has been cut by an average of 14 per cent in real terms.  Members of parliament have enjoyed significant pay rises in the past (BBC news, 2015) including a magnificent 10 per cent in 2015, in comparison the average wage increment for nurses has been 1 per cent per annum – below that of inflation.  So for many community and hospital nurses they receive a less than minimum wage for the complex work they do (not including the unpaid overtime they frequently work on most days).

‘More for less’ is the cry in the NHS, and undoubtedly the NHS is in difficult financial straits and many health staff including nurses, are facing stark choices in their futures.  Vacant nursing posts that cannot be recruited to, nursing retention at an all time low (Huges and Clarke, 2016) the remaining nurses working to fill these holes by absorbing the additional workload – so it seems that in 2017 the ability to absorb, adapt and over compensate has reached its limit. Many nurses in the NHS were ‘re-designed’ into new job descriptions that effectively moving their paygrade to a lower band whilst increasing the responsibility and work related activities (Dowler & Calkin, 2011).  So for many nurses working in the NHS, the negative pay increment comes in addition to significant wage reductions.  Given this, is it so surprising they are demoralized as a profession?  It’s hard to be perky and happy when you have to worry about how you pay your bills, and live from pay check to pay check – and yes, as a nurse I have been in that financial state more than once.

For many potential students, nurse training without bursary funding has added to the widening gap between vacant posts and available recruits.  Realistically, if you can potentially earn £42,000 as a trainee manager at Aldi (Telford, 2015) or £28,700 as a newly qualified Nurse (RCN, 2017) you would have to be dedicated to nursing to enter into and remain in a career that pays so little. To feel guilty when you cannot finish your work at the end of the shift that you stay late to complete, the untold hours of unpaid work that many nurses undertake without recognition does not help to pay the bills.  When additional work as agency or bank is taken on to make ends meet, they are reviled and blamed for the collapse of NHS finances (Cope, 2015), shamed by working as an agency nurse to cover their basic living costs or (heavan forbid – bring up their children and make sure they get love, attention and an education).

For many of my friends who are nurses, it is the desire to help others that brings them into this career.

To be able to support someone when they are at their most vulnerable; knowing that in many cases, small actions and nursing care can make someone feel better or allow them to die with dignity – that is what keeps nurses absorbing the additional responsibilities (Case, 2013).  When as a nurse you are not able to feed your family, despite being in full time employment (Shuttleworth, 2017) there are some very stark choices that may need to be made; continuing to work as a nurse is or might be one of these choices.

Of all the debates and discussions currently making the news the most shocking to me is the response from the Government (Marr, 2017) which only broadly acknowledged nursing pay as a ‘complex issue’.  It may be a complex issue for the government; however for nurses working at the co-face this is a critical issue and can no longer be placated to.  It takes a lot for a nurse to consider taking any form of strike action as it is counter intuitive to our sense of altruism; the fact that a clear majority of nurses are voting for potentially radical action should be a clear sign to a government that nurses have reached their saturation points.  After all, if it is good enough for parliament to ensure its members pay rises with inflation (or actually above inflation) then why are there different rules being applied to nurses?

Kim Moore is a Senior Lecturer in Mental Health at BCU. Find out more about our mental health and nursing courses.

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Kim Moore

Kim Moore

Lecturer in Mental Health, Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health