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The NHS relies too heavily on goodwill

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The Orwellian overtones of Thomas the Tank Engine may be subtle but they are definitely present.

Something about Thomas’ yearning to be a ‘really useful engine’ smacks of Boxer’s ‘I will work harder!’, in Animal Farm. It comes as no surprise when Thomas needs time out to be repaired before carrying on with his ‘very own branch line’; he was obviously suffering from burnout.

When I was a third-year nursing student I had a mentor, whom I shall call Sue, who was a fabulous nurse. Possibly the most empathic person that I have ever met, she was warm and caring and generous to a fault, especially with her time.

In my three-month placement on her ward I never saw Sue go home on time. Instead she would stay to reassure a relative, help another nurse or simply talk
with a patient who needed that bit longer. I can’t imagine how much unpaid time she must have given the NHS.

Because of this, people relied on her. If, for example, we had a particularly challenging patient, one who had mental health problems or was verbally or physically aggressive, she would be the one who would calm them down and apparently effortlessly de-escalate the situation.

There are lots of people like Sue – and not just nurses – doctors, allied healthcare professionals, housekeepers and others too numerous to mention.
It’s been said that the NHS runs on goodwill but how long will that goodwill last? You can carry on taking work home, staying to help out again and again, and missing untold meal breaks but, sooner or later, the strain is too much and we burn out.

‘I can’t fix the NHS,’ an ex-occupational therapist friend of mine told me sadly over the phone. She’s right, she couldn’t. Unlike Thomas, she’s a human, not a machine. And even Boxer the horse came to a sad end.

Arabella Sinclair-Penwarden is a staff nurse in Devon

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