“Frustration with the system was the reason I quit in the end,” said Conor Calby, 26, a paramedic and Unison representative in south-west England, who was recently out of work for a month while on fire. “I felt like I couldn’t do my job and I was letting patients down. After a few difficult years it was challenging.”
Although he usually manages to maintain a distinct separation between work and home life, the ritual eroded that line. He also lost his sleep pattern and appetite.
Related: Stress has caused more NHS staff absences than Covid, new figures show
The final story came when a 15 minute call that should have been trying to convince the services that were supposed to help a suicidal patient to come out resulted in three hours on the phone. “I was on a knife’s edge. That was because the system was broken. That’s the trigger.”
When he first joined the ambulance service six years ago, Calby saw it as a career. Now, the job has changed a lot. With scheduled 12-hour shifts often ending closer to 16 hours, he is too tired to socialize. And he usually only sees two or three patients per shift instead of the 12 he used to have, spending much of his time waiting in ambulance queues outside hospitals.
Doctors and nurses are also struggling under the pressure. After her third burn – the last of which saw her take six months off work – A&E doctor Amy Attwater considered leaving the profession altogether.
Attwater, 36, said during the Covid crisis, in which a colleague killed himself, she began to think about suicide and doubt her own abilities. She twice reported being bullied but said no action was taken.
“The only thing left for me was to take time off from work. I ended up having therapy, saw a psychiatrist and was on two anti-depressants,” said Attwater, a Midlands-based committee member for Doctors’ Association UK.
Conditions now, because of the NHS crisis, are “even worse than during the pandemic”, she said. There is no time to take a moment after a life-or-death incident with a patient, resulting in secondary trauma, and some large hospitals have a “toxic culture”. The counselors’ attitude is “right, on to the next one,” she said.
“By the time you get home you’re just a shell. Many times I came home and just cried and cried and cried.”
Facebook groups are filled with advice on how to leave the NHS, with many of her colleagues leaving to work in Australia or New Zealand.
Last year, Attwater decided to reduce her A&E hours to part-time, and take on part-time roles in teaching and as an NHS 111 doctor, to give her more flexibility to protect her mental health.
“The standard of care is not good enough and we feel, as doctors, that we are failing. But it’s a system failure,” she said.
Vicky, 34, is a fourth generation nurse based in London. But recently, for the first time in her 11-year career, she has begun to consider other jobs. “You have to think, can I live like this?” she said.
“I’ve never seen things as bad as they are right now, and I’ve never felt as pressured and lonely as I have taken advantage of as I do now.”
Sickness in her workplace is “extremely high”, she said, with more than half suffering from conditions such as anxiety and depression. “People have just pushed and pushed and pushed, and there’s only so much you can give. We are all doing our best and we are in crisis.”
Nurses need better pay, she said, more people and better long-term training.
A paramedic from the West Midlands, who cannot be named, has been out of work for several months with a burn and is unsure if she will return to the job she loved because of the “soul-destroying” working conditions. it.
The single mother said the job is not like the one she started eight years ago, responding to emergencies. Now she spends up to 13 hours “babysitting” GP patients in queues outside hospitals.
She has lost two stone in weight due to stress, barely gets breaks and regularly finishes several hours late, making her a “failure as a mother”. And when she reaches patients, she is often angry.
“It’s soul destroying. I start in the morning, go to a house, they say ‘we’ve been waiting 14 hours, where have you been?’”