A day in the life of an NHS staff nurse: truth as antidote to propaganda

My wife is a staff nurse at a large NHS hospital, on a ward where pretty much every patient is seriously ill or is able to do very little for themselves and so requires ‘full care’. To protect patient confidentiality, I won’t say which hospital or what type of ward, and I’ll use ‘them’ instead of him/her.

I’ve written before about the government’s plans to reduce public-sector wages in lower-paid parts of the country – which are usually Labour strongholds, and so can be ‘punished’ with minimal negative consequences for Tory electoral performance – and why these are economically stupid. At the same time, the government wants to reduce pensions for doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers in all parts of the country, while increasing their retirement age and raising pension contributions – even though the claim that public pensions are unaffordable is a lie.

And then, of course, the government infamously wants to push through a disguised, piecemeal privatisation of the NHS via Andrew Lansley’s odious ‘Health and Social Care Act‘, even though our NHS is the 2nd most efficient and effective health service in the world, and costs half as much as the US system the Tories want to emulate.

To get away with such patently wrong decisions, the government needs to win public opinion, or at least neutralise it. One of the main ways the Tories do this is ‘divide and conquer’, trying to set one part of the public against another. Over the last couple of years, the NHS has suffered waves of propaganda assault to paint the NHS as inefficient, doctors and nurses as selfish if they complain, and especially if they want to take action to protect themselves. And, sadly, in some quarters, these assaults have been effective. A look at the NHS hashtag on Twitter will quickly reveal plenty of people bashing the NHS, complaining about waiting lists, and even some actively espousing the government line that privatisation means efficiency, in wilful ignorance of the facts. The Tories are deliberately trying to reduce our esteem for the NHS we’ve always treasured.

So, on the basis that good information is the right antidote for bad, I thought I’d tell you about my wife’s last shift. She’s at work again now, doing the third of three ‘double’ shifts. These shifts typically run from 7 in the morning until 8.30pm, or from 8am until 9.30pm, at least notionally, though it’s the rule rather than the exception for them to finish later (the exception is getting paid for the overtime. So, even if she finishes promptly, it’s a 13.5 hour shift. There are supposed to be meal and drink breaks, but the ward my wife works on is short-staffed even at full complement, and there are always people off sick, often with work-related illness/injury or stress. So it’s very unusual for her to get a break, and meals are often taken ‘on the go’, if at all.

Yesterday’s shift was a tough one, but not unusually so. My wife ate a working breakfast at about 1pm – the first chance she had to eat or drink anything from an 8am start. She ate ‘lunch’ at around 6pm – taking turns between a bite of her sandwich and feeding a ‘specialed’ patient who can’t feed himself and needs not only to be fed but to be constantly watched by a nurse. She did this so that the nurse who was ‘specialling’ could get away to take her first break of the day.

In between these ‘breaks’, here are a few of the highlights of her day (I know these details because she gets home from work exhausted, frayed, and needing to offload her day before she can start to unwind), some of the highlights were:

– bathing and changing the soaked dressings of a bedridden patient who is so big that even the powered hoist can’t lift them, because there isn’t enough room between the bed and the  ceiling. Because of this issue, the bathing takes a team of 4 staff about an hour of hard physical work. The patient, in spite of being well-educated, never says ‘thank you’.

– bathing and giving injections to a patient with cancer which has spread to the brain, making them erratic and prone to lashing out physically at those who are taking care of them.

– dealing with a succession of patients who are doubly incontinent, or can’t get to the toilet without assistance, with regular resulting exposure to the kind of sights and smells that most of us would baulk at.

– dealing with an irate family member who was angry because their relative hadn’t received a cup of tea promptly when they’d asked for one, even though all the nurses and healthcare assistants were run off their feet.

And, in between these ‘highlights’, a constant rush of answering buzzers, changing dressings, administering injections, giving out meds (with great care of course to make sure they’re done right), lifting patients, feeding patients, and – absolutely critical but certainly not allowed for by the bean counters – comforting patients, calming them, treating them like human beings to mitigate the depersonalising experience of being seriously ill in a big hospital. And all of this in such a constant rush that she rarely gets to take the weight off her feet for a moment, let alone take a proper break.

My wife is diligent to the point of obsession. She loves her work and her patients, regularly receives thank you cards from patients or relatives who, of course, use the clichéd ‘angel’ to describe her. She treats them with respect and compassion, puts their needs routinely above her own, and comes home exhausted both physically and emotionally from each shift. And she lives in quiet terror that one day she or one of her colleagues will slip, make a mistake, because of the sheer frenetic pace at which they’re expected to work so that the management don’t have to employ more staff.

While she’s definitely paid better than minimum wage, her salary in no way reflects the conscientiousness, commitment and sheer bloody hard work she puts in. And in a way, that’s fine – she knew when she took the job that the work was hard and the pay wasn’t great. But now, because they think they can get away with it, the government wants to reduce her pay. Well, not her pay just yet, as the pilot for the plan is taking place in the south-west, where private companies and NHS trusts are forming a pay cartel so they can trap staff into accepting reduced pay because there’s nowhere else for them to go in the region.

As I’m sure you can imagine, it drives me insane when I hear a minister, government spokesman or other party with a vested interest on the TV or radio, spouting how the NHS is inefficient, staff pay and pensions are great and they shouldn’t be complaining, or otherwise trying to smear the Service in the eyes of the nation at large. When I hear them, I find myself suggesting, usually aloud, that the lazy, self-satisfied sods should try working on my wife’s ward for a week, and asking whether they’d then dare say that the staff don’t deserve the pay and pensions they were promised, and more on top.

I think the answer’s obvious. Don’t you?

Next time you hear the government peddling its propaganda, please remember this post and others, and don’t fall for the lie. And if you want to send a message to them about what you really think, here are two petitions you can sign to do so:



Please sign, and get your friends to do the same, via Twitter, Facebook, or smoke-signal!


  1. Thank you, from a NHS nurse who is wilting under the pressure of sheer hard work, negative public opinion and fear of making mistakes. You have told my story too. My heart goes out to your wife.

    1. Thank you, for sticking at it! There are still plenty of us not in the NHS who ‘get it’ – we need to fight back on all fronts against the negative propaganda.

  2. Insightful article on reality of NHS for staff. If only we could channel that staff devotion to care into action to challenge the Govt.

  3. Thank you, I’m a nurse too, your wife’s working day sounds a lot like mine, I love my job but I hate the politics, NHS managers have completely lost sight of what the NHS is actually for and offer no support, thanks or care to the staff who are working to deliver proper patient care.

  4. Sorry I hate the NHS. As a patient I have had nothing but bad experiences, The NHS is shit and the bad press is not government spin. The NHS needs a major overhaul including getting rid of the lying staff and managers who close ranks and cover up mistakes. The quicker the private sector gets involved the better, get the staff on private personal contracts and make the bastards accountable.

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