NHS workers various

General Election 2017: A new deal for the NHS workforce

Thu 25 May 2017

In the third of his election blogs, MiP chief executive Jon Restell calls on politicians to scrap the delusional NHS pay policy and offer a new deal to our hard-pressed workforce.

In this election campaign, it’s time for politicians to stop hiding behind platitudes about the NHS workforce and look the facts full in the face.

Staff shortages are a serious problem and they’re getting worse. There are unacceptable levels of vacancies in many areas – among midwives, A&E consultants, GPs, mental health nurses, and executive directors, to name but a few. And the uncertainty hanging over colleagues from other EU countries simply adds to the problem.

We like to think of the NHS as a ‘good’ employer. And on paper, it still is. But the reality for a growing number of staff feels very different. People face unacceptable workloads as staff shortages bite hard and demand for services keeps rising. A quarter of NHS staff experience bullying and harassment from colleagues every year. People feel pushed around by endless changes and re-organisations about which they’re never consulted. No wonder sickness absence and staff turnover rates are high. It’s a something of a miracle that staff remain as engaged as they are – but we’re pushing them to limit.

Pay isn’t everything, but it’s a big something. A decade of falling pay in real terms has taken its toll. As Simon Stevens has said more than once, it’s simply unsustainable for NHS pay not to not keep pace with the rest of the economy. If you don’t pay people properly for doing difficult jobs, sooner or later they will go off and do something else.

When NHS employers, unions, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and virtually every independent healthcare expert thinks NHS staff need a pay rise, surely even the Treasury can see that the game is up.

And amid all the market-based arguments, let’s not forget that some NHS workers face real hardship. The Prime Minister may now realise that some nurses do use food banks, but what she really should know is that many NHS staff are paid less than nurses. Low pay is an issue for managers as well as low-paid staff and their unions. If people are struggling to make ends meet, it’s hard for them to give the best care to patients – let alone get with the endless change programmes that are now a permanent feature of NHS life.

As unions, it’s our job to look after NHS staff. It’s our job to demand higher pay and better working conditions. But this matters to everyone in this country, whether they work for the NHS or not.

The NHS is a people business and quality of care depends on the skills, performance and engagement of all staff. We need to ask ourselves why we’re making it so difficult for people to give their best.

We know there’s a direct link between workplace bullying and poor care. We know that people work better when they have secure, permanent, high-quality jobs, and when they are involved in decisions about their working lives and the organisations they work for. We know people need flexible employment packages that fit the realities of modern life. We know that investment in training and skills needs to be more evenly distributed – 60% of NHS care is delivered by healthcare assistants, on whom we spend just 4% of the training budget.

And we know that poor workforce practice is simply inefficient. Mistakes are expensive. We still spend more than £3bn on agency staff because we can’t offer people the good permanent jobs they need. Low salaries and high staff turnover means the NHS gradually loses core competency in important areas – as the recent WannaCry cyber attack brutally demonstrated.

The government has no plan to deal with any of this. Its pay policy is at a dead end. It has no workforce strategy. It’s made it harder for people to train as the skilled professionals the NHS needs. Its change programmes have failed to engage staff or patients. The NHS workforce needs a new deal from the new government. This is what needs to be in it:

  • A realistic pay policy that ends poverty pay in the NHS and ensures pay at all levels keeps pace with the rest of the economy
  • Meaningful action to tackle bullying and harassment, as promised by health minister Philip Dunne at last year’s MiP conference
  • A comprehensive workforce strategy for the NHS in England, to realistically plan for the NHS’s future needs and offer high-quality, permanent jobs
  • Real, full-hearted engagement with staff and their unions in planning system changes, the integration of services and new models of care
  • Investment in training and skills that covers all NHS staff, particularly the low-paid staff who deliver most patient care
  • A permanent right to remain for all EU staff already working in the NHS

Please support us in any way you can in campaigning for a new deal for the NHS workforce – before polling day and after. 

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