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How happy and healthy are nurses?

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NT’s latest well-being survey reveals a significant drop in stress but poor weight control among nurses. Helen Mooney reports.

Nurses are happy in their jobs even though many have experienced work-related stress. This was the overarching finding of an exclusive NT survey of more than 1,300 nurses earlier this month.

Nearly half of those who responded had suffered stress because of their work, which has resulted in physical and mental health problems.

However, this was a marked drop from the results of last year’s survey, which found 70% of nurses were experiencing work-related stress.

Yet despite continuing stress, more than three-quarters said they were happy with their job and fewer than 20% said they had taken more sick leave this year than they would normally take - a decrease from a third of respondents in 2007.

Although one nurse admitted to using sick leave as a way to ‘get away from work stress’, many others proudly attested to not having taken any sick leave in the last three, four or five years.

‘I could find excuses not to go in to work on a daily basis but at the moment I make myself go in and I often enjoy my shift,’ said one. Another said that they did not take sick leave because they would feel guilty about the extra workload that would fall on colleagues.

60% of nurses do not exercise enough

Kim Sunley, RCN senior employment relations adviser, said that work-related stress among nurses was largely caused by negative views about their high workload and a corresponding drop in the quality of care they were able to provide.

‘Much of this causes them to feel unhappy and stressed about their job,’ she said.

A debate at this year’s RCN Congress, ‘Do we practise what we preach?’, asked members to address their own lifestyle choices, including smoking, diet and alcohol consumption. They were asked whether they thought it was hypocritical to advise patients
to change their lifestyle while continuing with their own unhealthy practices.

Click here to see answers to key survey questions

Views were mixed, with one nurse explaining how a friend who was treated for cancer was so upset by her oncology nurse who ‘stank of smoke and whose fingers were nicotine-stained’ that she asked for a different nurse to treat her. However, another said that nurses had to have the right to choose how to live their lives without being turned into ‘health gods’.

‘There are lots of organisational factors that can help nurses to be healthier, like having access to healthy foods in their organisation’s canteen and having the time to access proper meals,’ said Ms Sunley.

The Health and Safety Executive is currently trying to encourage NHS organisations to fully adhere to its management standards for work-related stress. This includes providing such organisations with a tool to assess work-related stress and a range of recommendations to improve implementation of stress assessment protocols.

However, Ms Sunley said that there were still not enough employers taking action to address work-related stress.

Asked about dietary habits, the survey’s findings were split down the middle. Half of respondents said they felt they had enough time to eat a healthy, balanced diet, while the other half said time pressures prevented them eating well. However, perhaps more significantly, 55% admitted to currently being ‘overweight’ or ‘very overweight’.

The survey also showed that nearly two-thirds of nurses took exercise less than once a week - falling far short of the Department of Health’s recommended minimum of 30 minutes, three times a week.

76% of nurses are happy in their job

One trust that has tried to help staff to improve their diet is the Countess of Chester NHS Foundation Trust. It has teamed up with a health promotion charity, the Heart of Mersey, to encourage the provision of healthier food in hospitals’ catering outlets.

Michelle Redgard, the trust’s dietetics services manager, said that its hospital now has much healthier food options readily available for staff to buy. ‘We have made sure that healthy choices are now available and that they are better marketed,’ she explained.

Earlier this year the trust also ran a 10-week weight-loss challenge. ‘We had 150 staff who enrolled and 84 who participated - the challenge was very positive, and not only did staff lose weight but it also boosted morale,’ Ms Redgard said.

The comments in the survey confirm a need for organisations to focus on both diet and exercise to help staff improve their overall health and well-being. As one nurse said: ‘I grab food on the run, I eat snacks and I’m often too tired to eat properly at home and I eat sweets due to stress.’ Another added: ‘I eat rubbish - bread, crisps and chocolate and stuff it down my neck as quickly as possible.’

Comments from respondents to the NT well being survey   
On thier job:On drinkingOn their sex livesOn smoking

‘I am fulfilled and feel values in my current post’

‘I generally enjoy my job, though I’m exhausted much of the time. However, it is still very rewarding.’

‘I have interesting, varied work and flexible working hours’

‘I do drink too much - but am not that worried about it frankly.’

‘I have recently cut back because of weight issues but a glass of wine at the end of the day is a nice way to relax and helps with sleep too.’

I find I need to drink on a n evening to relax. I feel it is directly related to stresses at work.’

‘I am too tired to have any physical realtionship with my husband. We are both nurses so shift work is a nightmare.’

‘When you’re working late, sex is the last thing on your mind. Sousually if it happens it is at the weekends’

‘The stress of my job is damaging to the whole family relationship.’

‘I have just taken up smoking again because I am worried about debts, council tax and my mortgage.’

‘I cannot afford to smoke on a nursing salary’

‘I stopped smoking with support from colleagues a year ago.’

‘I smoke approx five cigarettes a day. since my trust went smoke free, I stopped smoking at work.’

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