Northern Ireland news

Nurse sickness absence hits 20 per cent in some hospital wards as pandemic takes its toll, RCN chief warns

Sickness absence among nurses is increasing, the Royal College of Nursing has said
Seanín Graham

SICKNESS absence among nurses is running at a record 20 per cent high in some hospital wards as the impact of the pandemic deepens, a union chief has warned.

Rita Devlin, director of the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) in Northern Ireland, said the rocketing rates were not just linked to Covid-19 infections but the mental toll of "the work itself" over the past 18 months.

Ms Devlin admitted obtaining information from health trusts on current sickness across professions was difficult - but added she had regular contact with senior nursing colleagues working on the frontline.

And she said that large gaps in rotas meant there was a greater reliance on agency staff.

"Some trusts are running at 11 per cent but I have been contacted by ward sisters working in different pockets of the health service who tell me that its high as 20 per cent," she said.

"Nurses are going off with Covid as well as post-Covid symptoms but for many others it is their mental health and and anxiety. On certain days, there a few wards that are nearly all run by agency.

"You also have to take into consideration we are an ageing workforce with many of our members going through the menopause - and you think what that brings to the table. Nursing is a tough job, physically and mentally.

"For those who have worked through the pandemic and seen patients dying on their own and in some cases may not have been able to hold their hand properly as they were gloved up or smile at them because they're wearing masks, it has really impacted."

The RCN chief, who has 40 years experience as a nurse and spent much of her career in Belfast's Mater Hospital, called for greater incentives by the Department of Health - which is responsible for workforce planning - to retain staff.

The health service is currently short of more than 2,500 nurses. However, that does not include the private sector where thousands of vacancies also exist.

"We have challenged the health minister about what he is going to do to retain nurses - not just recruit them - as the people we're afraid of losing are very experienced staff," Ms Devlin added.

"He has agreed a retention strategy. For some nurses it is about better pay, but that is not all. A recent survey we did showed one of the big issues was career progression. Band 5 is the lowest entry level and some highly skilled nurse have been band 5 for years.

"We do not believe nursing is a band 5 occupation. It is an artificial cap and we would like to see more band 6 posts created."

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