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‘First opportunity I’m out of this shambles’ - Paramedics anger at winter holiday restrictions and rota changes

PUBLISHED: 06:00 12 August 2018 | UPDATED: 11:32 13 August 2018

An East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust rapid response vehicle (RRV).

An East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust rapid response vehicle (RRV).

Archant

Paramedics have claimed morale is at an “all time low” after new rules put restrictions on holiday time for half the year.

James Paget Hospital
Generic hospital
Accident and emergency
Ambulance
Byline: Sonya Duncan
Copyright: Archant 2016James Paget Hospital Generic hospital Accident and emergency Ambulance Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2016

An article posted on the East of England Ambulance Trust’s (EEAST) internal notice board detailed an updated annual leave policy, where the number of people allowed off at any one time would be reduced by 25pc and 50pc, depending on the month.

It said this was a result of the risk summit which was held after what was widely recognised as a terrible winter for the NHS.

But staff reacted with anger in the comments section, and concern that requests were more likely to be turned down.

The article has since been deleted but screenshots seen by this newspaper showed 62 comments from staff, 58 of which were complaining about or questioning the decision, and 4 replies from management.

One of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust's new ambulances, based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 519 CDI model from Orwell Truck & Van.One of the East of England Ambulance Service NHS Trust's new ambulances, based on the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 519 CDI model from Orwell Truck & Van.

A spokesman for EEAST said all staff would have the same amount of leave and were able to carry it over if not used. They also said a “limited by back scheme had been introduced”.

‘We’ve had enough’

But one member of staff said: “Wow. This just reaffirms to me that the trust executive are complete[ly] disconnected from the core workforce providing frontline services.”

Another said: “This policy just completely destroys any chance of getting annual leave approved for occasional date that are needed.”

Stock photo of a paramedic and his rapid response vehicle.
Photo: Bill SmithStock photo of a paramedic and his rapid response vehicle. Photo: Bill Smith

The same person added: “This policy makes a horrendous situation into what is rapidly becoming a dictatorship with zero regard for staff.”

Another questioned: “Is this legal? This along with proposed rota changes may be the cause of many staff to leave.”

One staff member was due to leave and said they “honestly cannot wait”. They added: “Every shift between now and my leaving date is another 11.5 hours of pain and misery.”

Another said: “We’ve had enough. First opportunity I’m out of this shambles. EEAST board should hang your heads in shame.”

Stock picture of an ambulance response car. Picture: Chris BishopStock picture of an ambulance response car. Picture: Chris Bishop

Some staff members offered alternative solutions to winter pressures, such as increasing bank staff levels, and offering overtime incentives.

One person said: “You cannot take away or limit staff’s chances of getting annual leave from an already crowded system as it’s our statutory right.”

Another added: “So unbelievable I had to read it twice. We work ourselves into the ground for this organisation that seems to be alienating its staff more and more on a weekly basis.”

Another comment read: “Yet another kick in the teeth to the already overworked staff.”

Stock photos of ambulances. 
Photo: IAN BURTStock photos of ambulances. Photo: IAN BURT

And yet another said: “What an answer - punish the staff who are already running themselves ragged.”

One commenter questioned the rationale behind the decision and added: “Yet another change that adds to the woes of the already down trodden employees of a broken ambulance service.”

Changes made to ‘support winter pressures’

Other staff questioned whether Unison had agreed to the change, and how the decision had been communicated to staff.

The EEAST spokesman said Unison had agreed to the principle that there should be restrictions over the winter period.

But did not confirm whether the exact policy, which would see a 25pc reduction of allowed leave between November 12 and December 9, and January 7 and January 12, plus a 50pc reduction between December 10 and January 6, had been agreed.

Other staff said it would drive up sick leave rates and that many staff had already left the NHS, and this would push more out the door.

Another staff member said: “If restrictions on leave are in place for nearly 50pc of the year then you do not have enough staff.”

The EEAST spokesman said: “We adapted our annual leave restrictions to support winter pressures the whole NHS experiences. All staff have the same amount of annual leave. Those not able to take all of their leave when they want to can either carry it over into next year or we have offered a limited buy back scheme.

“Like all other organisations, we continuously track the levels of sickness which remain at average levels in the trust. Wellbeing measures are in place to support staff throughout the year so they can continue to provide the best service to patients, including making sure flu jabs are available.”

Grievance submitted by 106 staff members

This newspaper has also seen a formal, collective grievance submitted by 106 staff members calling for the policy to be dropped and restrictions lifted.

The trust’s spokesman added: “We are hearing a collective grievance about annual leave policy. We can confirm we have incentivised overtime on a number of occasions and are doing so again in preparation for August bank holiday.”

Frontline ambulance staff have also hit out at management and say they have not listened to feedback.

Speaking anonymously to this newspaper, four separate EEAST staff members said a recent change in rostering meant their work life balance had been affected.

The change meant that staff who would previously work the same shift pattern, at the same station, could now be sent to any station to fill gaps in rotas.

‘Broken service’

One member of staff, who said they had worked on the frontline “for many years”, said: “Crews regularly see patients that have waited between six and 12 hours for an ambulance. Whilst this is obviously distressing for the patient, it also has an effect on the crew as they are the ones regularly bearing the brunt of dissatisfaction resulting from a broken service.”

And while they recognised the need for new rotas, which was insisted upon by commissioners, they did not believe this was the correct solution.

But EEAST said: “Rotas need improving so that they better balance the needs of patients and our staff. It means we can adapt to significant growth in demand and new national performance standards which place very different requirements on our organisation.”

‘I struggle to put the uniform on’

The staff member said: “Morale of the work force is at an all time low, with experienced clinicians leaving in droves. This loss of experience simply cannot be replaced overnight and the inexperience of our workforce is reflected in the unprecedented number of serious incidents reported by the trust; a large proportion of which is from new inexperienced paramedics.

“For me personally I get up, have a shower, and struggle to put a uniform on. Often I just sit for a while wondering if I should go sick or thinking if there was another job I could be doing. I have these thoughts every day I go to work. I have a family to support and a mortgage to pay otherwise I would have been gone long ago.

“I clock watch the entire shift, simply wanting it to be over so I can go home, but also knowing we won’t finish on time.

“Staff are tired, burnt out and struggling to see light at the end of the tunnel.”

‘Psychologically damaged and alone’

Another paramedic, with more than 10 years of experience, described the conditions as “brutal”.

They said: “Alone in rural Norfolk at 3am there will be no Helicopter Heroes, no doctors and no midwives to back you up. Often there will be a long wait for the fire service and the police will decline to attend as they are too short staffed.”

They said this had always been the case “but now, in the modern ambulance service, you are also likely to be stressed, exhausted, psychologically damaged and alone”.

A further paramedic, who had been in the job more than 20 years, said the job had always been stressful and high pressure, but things now were the “worst they had been”.

They said: “We’re bearing the brunt of [the changes], it stops with us. We’re having to turn to MPs and the press because management will not listen.”

Grievances seen by this newspaper had been submitted to EEAST by 39 members of staff based at Cromer and North Walsham stations, 33 members of staff from Longwater station in Norwich, and 10 staff members from Dereham.

But a identical responses from the trust’s director of people and culture, and deputy chief executive Lindsey Stafford-Scott to all three complaints told staff it was “too early to raise grievances” or halt the changes made to rotas.

A staff representative, who did not want to be named for fear of reprisals, said: “Staff are tired, demoralised, and to then have their voices ignored, just adds to the problems. Collective grievances are being refused, and staff views on negative changes have been removed from the trust’s online newsletter, while representatives that have been elected by staff have been targeted and excluded.

“It’s so deeply worrying and in the many years I have worked in the trust on the frontline, I have never known an executive team to behave this way.

“The deep cultural problems in our trust start at the top and are not due to funding, they are due to leadership, or more accurately, the lack of it.”

‘We will address individuals’ concerns’

An EEAST spokesman said: “We are in the middle of an extensive consultation with staff. We have 16 focus groups involving unions across the region, which will meet a total of four times between July and September. We will also hold one to ones to address individuals’ concerns.

“No decisions have been made, and we are listening very closely to staff to understand the issues. Our aim is to find a solution which is fair for all.

“We are also working with Unison to develop a new relief policy to give more certainty for staff.’

On staff morale the trust said all ambulance trusts were experiencing pressure because of a year-on-year rise in demand for services.

‘We will move forward positively’

A spokesman said: “The CQC report [in which the trust was rated requires improvement] highlighted the need to put in place organisational changes to make improvements. This is bound to impact staff morale.

“We will move forward positively and are listening to our people to make EEAST a better place to work.

The spokesman said staff had access to various levels of support including counselling and therapy.

They said: “We have specific support for control centre staff and TRiM (Trauma Risk Management) for people who may need care and signposting after an incident. This team moved into a new staff wellbeing hub in June so there is one place from which staff can be guided or supported, and we launched a new staff wellbeing magazine this week called Hubbub.”

They also said new investment meant more staff would be recruited, and said 47 new call handlers had been hired after a recent open day.

They added: “Staff engagement is an area we know we need to improve on, specifically constructive dialogue between staff and management. We have refreshed our staff engagement strategy and are working through the actions to make sure that people do have the forum to raise concerns. Our Freedom to Speak Up Guardians, who were praised in the recent CQC report, have been pivotal in making sure that specific patient safety concerns can be shared with the Trust to learn from.”

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