Role: Agency Nurse
Wage: £14-18 per hour, without pension or sick pay
Previous job: Project manager for Child Advocacy International
I never set the alarm clock because if I did I’d spend three hours staring up at the anaglypta waiting for the agency to call. When they do I could be relaxing with my wife in front of the TV watching Buffy re-runs or shopping at Morrisons. The call generally goes something like this:
‘Hello?’ (pause) ‘Yes this is Simon, how can I help?’
‘Right. (pause) Ok. Well I am actually (pause)
‘ Ok, I’ll do it. (Pause) I’ll be there as quick as I can.’
What happens next is akin to Clark Kent receiving a life or death distress call – albeit in a slightly less glamorous setting and degree of urgency. I sprint for the nearest public convenience complete with uniform and appear five minutes later sweating like a first date.
My wife usually drives while I phone for last-minute travel directions, as well as trying to decipher the agency spiel. ‘He’s a lovely if slightly eccentric old man’ usually translates as – he’ll chase you round the garden if you look at his wife in the wrong way. If I listen carefully I can also pick up vital background office Intel.
‘Mark said he’d never go back.’ Or the timeless ‘Is Simon’s indemnity insurance up to date?’ are not uncommon. If I have time, it’s far simpler to text agency colleagues for the lowdown on a particular client. Local hospitals and nursing homes are more straightforward. There aren’t many I haven’t visited over the years and the office staff are usually upfront about the more disreputable because they seldom pay the bills.
After about an hour of driving through country lanes and shouting at farmers for directions, I usually find the location. Nine times out of ten I’m greeted by the stressed-out but duty-bound daughter who gives me that desperate but relieved stare. After they’ve gabbled through the dos and don’ts, blurted out a vague potted history about dads quaint little habits, they leave.
It isn’t always like this. Most of the time the client is confused but affable and my duties are more like an upmarket babysitter. This is probably why I prefer private patients and select care homes to the more hectic ward setting. Some hospital staff avoid agency work because they prefer a well-established routine without too many surprises.
I would argue that you can stagnate and fall into bad habits when you’re based on one ward with all its photocopied care plans and petty competitiveness. They also claim that agency work is well paid and devoid of stress – yeah right! ‘Universal scapegoat’ or ‘mobile mercenary’ are common labels.
What they fail to realise is I have no works pension, being self-employed. Any annual leave depends on how much excess money I have accrued. If I don’t work I don’t have a holiday. You can command a large salary if you’re prepared to go anywhere and work til you drop, but I would rather arrive at retirement minus a nervous breakdown as a result of some fatigue-based catastrophe. The pressure as a lone worker to be professional, conscientious and accountable for my actions is huge as I may find myself in unfamiliar and hostile surroundings any day of the week.
Resourcefulness and adaptability are watchwords in agency nursing. I suppose my background also helps. After spells as an army nurse in Hong Kong, a policeman and more recently a paediatric nurse – together with numerous brief, mindless occupations – I am conditioned to change and have amassed enough worldly experience to keep in reserve, should I need it.
There are rewards to agency work and this is particularly relevant to students and those people thinking of joining the profession. Agency work is the ideal way of sampling a variety of disciplines before you decide to opt for paediatrics or oncology.
If you like a particular ward and gel with the staff then do your homework while you’re there. It’s far easier than trying to make a decision based on the vague memory of a modular ward placement where everything is influenced by your mentors’ written evaluation.
It’s also ideal as a temporary occupation for disillusioned, skint or burnt-out nurses who need to regroup and consider their future. I managed to do full-time agency work for six years mainly as a result of careful assignment selection (and a contortionist’s flexibility).
From sixty or so hospital and care homes I created a short list of half a dozen small well-run establishments that I visited as often as I could. While the agency tried to spread my skills thinly over three counties, I always came back to my lucky six. I found that after a while they refused to accept anyone else and as long as I remained loyal I could organise my time equally among them