Over a third (39%) of nurses have skipped meals in order to feed their family or to save money as financial and Covid pressures force many to the brink of quitting the NHS, a survey seen by ITV News has revealed. For nurses from an ethnic minority background the situation is even bleaker, with over half (61%) admitting to missing meals owing to money worries.
The exclusive figures from Nursing Notes and Nurses United lay out a stark crisis in nursing, as 30% of NHS nurses say they plan to leave the profession in the next 12 months citing mental health issues and a poor work/life balance as the most common reasons.
The survey asked more than 3,000 registered NHS nurses across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland about conditions over the past 12 months - and the findings paint a sombre picture across the health service.
One nurse told ITV News the “situation in the NHS is absolutely dire” with over half (64%) of nursing staff admitting to working overtime to pay bills.
In addition, 57% admitted to using a credit card and 29% to borrowing money from friends to pay essential bills.
One in ten (11%) nursing staff have missed a rent or mortgage payment in the past twelve months, the survey showed.
Of those that said they were looking to leave, 27% said a meaningful pay rise would convince them to stay, while less work-related stress (21%) and an improved work-life balance were close behind (20%).
Niaomi Gordon, 32, from South Wales, has been forced to use food banks and take out credit cards to buy Christmas presents for her 14-year-old son.
She contracted coronavirus in late April and has been off work for prolonged periods suffering with the effects of long Covid.
Prior to the pandemic, Ms Gordon would balance her hospital work with agency in order to make up the shortfall between the rising cost of living and her stagnant wage.
But Covid means staff cannot not move between hospitals, so she can no longer pick up extra shifts. Her financial pressures have increased as her illness has meant her relying on minimal sick pay for chunks of the year.
“We need support, we need help," she says.
"We need people to support us and say, ‘you know what, these these guys are working really hard. These guys deserve that pay rise’. And not only that, we deserve to be paid fair. And we're not.
“I’m not sure how I'm going to get through January. So I'm using credit cards and have taken out store cards so I can buy Christmas presents for my son. And I guess I'll just have to worry about that debt later on down the line.”
The potential exodus of nurses could create a staffing crisis in the NHS that is already buckling under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic.
As Ms Gordon says: “What is the point of an hospital bed without a nurse? How are we supposed to deliver the best care that we can possibly give if you've not got a nurse at the foot of that bed? Or at the end of the call? When you buzz, there's no one there? Definitely the situation is dire, dire.”
It is not just financially that nurses are suffering. The survey found 66% of nursing staff said they frequently worked below safe nursing staffing levels.
A large majority (77%) said this fall in standards is putting patient care at risk as well as their own safety.
One in three (35%) nursing staff reported being physically assaulted, and the majority of respondents (81%) said they had been verbally assaulted.
Over half (51%) reported bullying in the workplace with many being subject to racism (9%) and discrimination (40%).
For nurses from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities the situation is even worse, according to the survey: 62% of respondents said they had experienced racism while 63% said they had experienced discrimination.
Shockingly, 83% of nursing staff from ethnic minority groups said they had been verbally assaulted at work in the past year and 60% said they had experienced bullying from colleagues.
Over half (61%) of minority nursing staff admitted to missing meals to feed their families or to save money, while around half 45% said they had borrowed money from friends to pay essential bills.
Rachel Ambrose, a nurse from Buckinghamshire, told ITV News that the pandemic "has highlighted what's been going wrong for a really long time".
She said it was the daily "microaggressions" that were harder to tackle that outright racist actions.
Anthony Johnson from Nurses United said: "No matter who we are or what we look like we all want the same thing. We all want to be valued, cared for and kept safe.
"This survey from Nursing Notes and Nurses United shows that for many patients and nurses that is not happening. Frontline nurses like myself are struggling to get through this with our mental health intact, we're going to food banks, borrowing money from friends and missing meals all to try to get by.
"And the impact is on our patients and their safety, by creating thousands of vacancies so that two thirds of all nurses are saying that their shifts are frequently unsafe.
"This Government needs to introduce a restorative 15% pay rise and enshrine safe staffing ratios into law to ensure that our loved ones and our nurses are kept safe."
A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The commitment and tireless hard work from nurses across care settings in Wales has been truly remarkable. We fully recognise the pressures they are experiencing and have worked closely with NHS employers and trade unions to create a comprehensive wellbeing package to help support them.
"The current multi-year pay deal for nurses is set to end in March and we are working with our NHS union and employer partners to ensure the best possible reward packages for all health workers through the independent public pay review process.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are hugely grateful for the continued dedication and hard work of all our nurses.
“NHS nurses are currently benefitting from the final year of a three-year pay deal, agreed with trade unions, which has delivered year-on-year pay increases, including increasing the starting salary for a newly qualified nurse by over 12 per cent by 2021.
“The NHS People Plan also puts staff wellbeing at its heart with a new recruitment, retention and support package.”