NHS morale so low students are told 'don't become nurses' amid cost of living crisis

Pressure on trainee and qualified nurses is “taking its toll” with students dropping off courses and nurses turning to food banks, according to NHS workers. Credit: ITV/Sharp End

Morale is so low on hospital wards in Wales that staff are telling students “don’t become nurses” amid “extortionate costs”.

Pressure on trainee and qualified nurses is “taking its toll” with students dropping off courses and nurses turning to food banks, according to NHS workers.

It comes as all but one NHS employers in Wales have voted to take strike action over pay levels and patient safety concerns, the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has said.

Health Minister Eluned Morgan told ITV's Sharp End we 'don't have the money' for extra nurse's pay

Carlie Andrews, a nursing student at Swansea University, says course mates are turning to food banks to be able to afford petrol as the costs are “extortionate”.

She said: “It takes its toll on mental health and a lot of people do drop off the course. A lot of people are burned out by the time they qualify and many nurses quit within the first six months of starting their career.”

The third year Adult Nursing student is thankful of NHS bursary funding which pays for her degree but would like to see an apprenticeship wage paid while on placement.

“We don’t get paid for our time spent on placements,” she said.

“We do 37.5 hours a week unpaid whilst doing bank shifts on the NHS to make end’s meet. So that’s 62.5 hours a week. I don’t have time to socialise and we have people with kids on the course who don’t have any time at all and it’s an extra stress.

“Some are using food banks to be able to afford petrol as the costs are extortionate. Before nursing was a degree, trainees would be paid an apprenticeship wage.

“I understand that they have a degree now to make nursing a profession but being a student nurse is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Carlie Andrews hopes student nurses can be paid an apprenticeship wage whilst on placements.

Morale is so low on wards that nurses tell students “don’t become nurses” but Carlie says she and other students are “in it to help people”.

She added: “We do question ‘Do we really want to do this?’ but there is also a lot of camaraderie in the NHS and the RCN has saved me from leaving the course.”

The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) says students must be considered ‘supernumerary’ and cannot be counted as part of the staffing required for safe and effective care in that setting whilst on placements.

Students in practice or work-placed learning must be supported to learn and practise skills safely with protected learning time.

RCN Wales says the first period of industrial action can be expected in December - with a mandate to organise strikes runs until early May 2023.

RCN Wales remains in a pay dispute with Welsh Government since October 2021 over its 3% pay award for NHS Wales nursing staff.

Community nurse Tom Wildin says the NHS is heading towards its “hardest winter yet”.

He told ITV’s Sharp End: “Things are quite strained and we're making the best of a bad situation as a community nurse team, but over the last few years things have got harder and harder and I imagine this winter will be the hardest one yet.

“There's no referral that comes through that we turn down, whether it's from the GP, the hospice or the hospital - we take it all on.

“Morale is really poor. It's affecting our mental health - myself included. The cost of living is crippling us. I know of people going to food banks just to make end's meet. The cost of fuel, food, energy, it's affecting everything.”

Tom Wildin says nursing "comes from the heart" but staff need the recognition they deserve. Credit: ITV/Sharp End

The nurse’s strike is the first statutory ballot on industrial action across the UK in the 106-year history of the Royal College of Nursing. It comes after increased strain on the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic, topped off with immense cost of living pressures and inflation.

But Tom says for him, it’s never been about money - it’s about protecting the future of the NHS.

He said: “I didn't come into the NHS to be rich. It comes from the heart - but I think now more than ever, the money does make conditions better and to get the recognition that we deserve.

“We're hitting a crisis. We're looking after really vulnerable people and no matter how hard we work - there's so much pressure and the resources aren't there.”

RCN Cymru called their latest pay rise offer "pitiful and insulting" and said it was equal to a pay cut in real terms. Credit: RCN

The RCN says poor pay is a key contributing factor to acute staff shortages affecting patient safety.

In Wales, an experienced nurse has seen their pay decline by at least 20% in real terms. The RCN says fair pay is essential to retain existing and recruit new nursing staff in the safety critical roles they do. It is calling for a pay rise of 5% above inflation (measured by RPI)to start making up for a decade of real-terms pay cuts. 

'Health takes up more than half of Wales' budget'

But Wales' health minister, Eluned Morgan said there simply isn't the money available to increase nurse's pay.

She told ITV's Sharp End: "We absolutely appreciate the work that NHS workers have been doing over the past two years. We've followed the recommendations of the pay review body that the unions were a part of as well - but obviously inflation has made life difficult for everybody.

"Health takes up more than 50% of the Welsh budget."

The health minister added that the number of people working in the NHS has increased by 53% in the last 20 years.

"We've recruited quite aggressively during the Covid pandemic - we've got more people working in the NHS than ever before and part of the issue is that the demand just continues to increase."

The Welsh Government recognises the anger and disappointment many public sector workers are feeling, it said.

A spokesperson added: "Following the ballot result, we will work with NHS organisations and health boards on their contingency plans.

"The public should be assured that arrangements will be made with RCN Wales to ensure there will always be a safe level of staffing, with life-saving and life-maintaining care being provided during any industrial action."

  • For more on this story, you can catch up on the latest episode of Sharp End here. The show airs on Monday nights, 10.45pm, on ITV Cymru Wales.