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‘We are doing something very wrong to nurses’

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If I have a responsibility to this page, it involves some sensitivity to the experiences of the people who may read it.

Given this is January and we all drank too much fizzy wine over Christmas – and some of us at least feel as though the inside of our skin is coated with the residue of minty chocolate – this column should be quiet. I should be making you all a metaphorical cup of tea and casually asking if you have thought about your summer holiday yet. Sorry about this.

”My concern was, and is, what working environment are we creating and sustaining for nurses?”

At the end of last year, a study into the health data of health professionals revealed that 25% of nurses were obese, compared with 14% of other healthcare colleagues (such as doctors and dentists).

Now I’m thinking that after Christmas when we may have spent more time than usual near the cheeseboard, this is perhaps not the most sensitive time to come back to this issue – but the thing is I have to. It’s basically the same as me with stollen. I can’t help myself – except in this case, unlike stollen, it’s because the issue makes me cross.

This is a recurrent theme for me. I first wrote about it back in 2013 I think following research that emerged from the USA that showed far greater rates of obesity among nurses than this study does (40% across 50 states). Back then the thing that interested me was the correlation between the findings and their alleged meaning.

Like now, the concern appeared to primarily be ‘how might nurses’ weight hamper their ability to deliver safe and effective care’. My concern was, and is, what working environment are we creating and sustaining for nurses?

”It isn’t just biscuits nurses are collecting under their skin. It is every shortfall in the services they are sustaining”

Part of the problem with discussion of an issue like this is that it tends to resort to slightly ubiquitous terms such as ‘stress eating’ or even shrugging analysis such as “well we don’t get breaks and if there are biscuits nearby we snack on them”.

Indeed, nurses themselves will probably often shrug at the inevitability of under-staffed, under-resourced guerrilla warfare-style nursing that exists in a state of perpetual crisis. Underpinned by the vague hope that it will get better at some point but without any real sense of how, or when.

At the heart of that is, the nurse who is asked to not only do more and cope with more but also to absorb more. To gather up the difficult experiences, tasks and emotions that they come across all day and store them away where they will do no undue harm to their patients. It isn’t just biscuits nurses are collecting under their skin. It is every shortfall in the services they are sustaining.

Obesity is just one sign. We know that nurses are at higher risk of suicide than other professions. That should break the heart of every civilised person in the country and yet we find ways of forgetting it or at least ignoring it.

“That should break the heart of every civilised person in the country and yet we find ways of forgetting it or at least ignoring it”

We are doing something wrong to nurses – demanding they carry too much, hold too much, see too much, sustain far too much and we are not caring about the consequences. Indeed, we are imagining that if we lose a few we can replace them with new ones – an idea that troubles me deeply as a lecturer by the way.

I’m sorry this is not a light and quiet January column – one that wonders about credit card debt and snow. If it has purpose, dare I suggest it is an invitation to a late resolution? One about not letting the system and its governance design your wellbeing if you can help it? One that asks you to care for the carers? One that wishes you good mental and physical health.

Mark Radcliffe is author of Stranger than Kindness.

Follow him on twitter: @markacradcliffe.

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