Two thirds of nurses have suffered the side effects of work-related stress over the last year, with the majority reporting they are having to work longer hours, a Nursing Times survey has found.
Unions warn that the findings are a symptom of the financial pressures facing the NHS.
The online survey, completed by 1,971 Nursing Times readers, reveals that 77% of respondents regularly work over their allotted hours – and in a quarter of cases by between six and 10 hours a week.
Worryingly, 43% of nurses report that they are working noticeably long hours than this time last year.
The results, from our latest annual lifestyle survey, reveal a snapshot of the profession’s health and wellbeing in spring 2011. It focuses in detail on alcohol and smoking, exercise and diet, and personal finance.
Nursing Times carried out similar research in 2007, 2008 and 2010 – looking at different factors affecting occupational health and the areas affected by it.
The latest findings suggest a significant worsening in nurse health and wellbeing while at work, as anxiety about job security increases and NHS managers seek to make ever more productivity gains to balance shrinking budgets.
For example, 63% of respondents in 2011 say they have suffered side effects from work-related stress, such as physical or mental health problems in the past year. This compares to 49% in 2008 – the last occasion we asked nurses about this particular issue.
Additionally, in 2008, 59% of nurses said they were happy with their work-life balance. But this has now fallen to less than half, at 45%.
The fall-out effects of these factors appear to be translating into increased sickness absence. In the 2007 survey 30% of respondents said they had taken more sick leave than they would normally take during the previous 12 months. This fell to 18% in 2008 but has now risen again to 31%.
The finding was backed by the views of nurses managers, 55% of home said they had noticed staff taking more time off sick.
Unison head of nursing Gail Adams said: “The survey shows that nurses are crying out for more support for their health and wellbeing. Rather than cutting vital services and staff, trusts should be investing in staff health and wellbeing. Healthier staff are more productive, and need to take less time off.”
She added: “It is a sign of the huge commitment to the job, that 77% of nurses regularly work over their allotted hours.”
Royal College of Nursing senior employment relations advisor Kim Sunley said: “Nurses are working much longer hours due to cuts, and doing more work with less staff.”
Ms Sunley highlighted the problem of nurses continuing to work while they were ill – known as presenteeism – which could lead to burn out and long-term sickness absence.
She said: “There is an issue of nurses coming into work when ill not to let colleagues down or because of pressure from their managers. If this continues it can leave burn out.
“Managers and employers need to be aware of the issue of presenteeism and take steps to support staff under pressure,” she added.
Greta Thornbory, from the Association of Occupational Health Nurse Practitioners, said the profession had always worked long hour but described the situation as “awful for nurses now”.
Highlighting the current NHS reforms and service reconfigurations, she said: “The constant changes are unsettling and stressful.”
She also said meal breaks and the way the working day was constructed did not give nurses enough time to eat healthily. She said: “The nurses’ day is dictated by people who don’t know what clinical work entails.”
She added: “Nurses need to be cared for. Sickness absence needs to be handled in the correct way, by calling the nurse during her absence and meeting with her on her return to check all is well.”