Pressures faced by NHS workers dominated the Unison union’s health conference in Bournemouth this week.
The debates reflected chronic understaffing, rocketing workloads and growing workplace stress across the health service.
Sam Hemraj from Unison’s health service group executive attacked the “underfunding and lack of care of staff and understanding by the Tory government”.
She explained that the “pressures caused by cuts to services” also affect mental health service workers.
The NHS annual staff survey for 2018 showed work-related illness at a five-year high.
Four out of ten workers reported feeling unwell due to stress—and fewer than one in three thought bosses took health and well-being seriously.
Motions called for more in-work support for staff who suffer from mental distress. Fran, a delegate from Hampshire, said that two counsellors in her branch help other members.
“We offer the chance to our stewards to come to us, particularly if they've got burn out,” she said.
“If this sort of service was offered within trusts, then I’m sure that current issues might decrease.”
The motions looked to social partnership with hospital managers to solve the crisis.
Roger Davey, a delegate from Wiltshire and Avon, opposed social partnership because “we have different values”.
He pointed out that NHS England chair, Tory Lord Prior, sees “privatisation as a remedy for bullying because he says privatisation would break the NHS hierarchical structure”.
“The trade unions are the best and only organisation that can fight bullying,” said Roger.
One motion called for closer working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service over patient bullying of staff.
But Cherry, a delegate from Homerton University Hospital in east London, said that patients’ and relatives’ frustrations were the “result of austerity policies”.
“If I was the parent of a disabled child waiting for care I would be frustrated,” she said.
Roger said his branch’s campaign against a service review showed the real solution is to build workplace organisation and union strength.
“We said we can fight and we can win this, and during the campaign our membership doubled,” he said.
“We have three new reps and a 97 percent vote for industrial action in an indicative ballot.
“Members aren’t apathetic—when you give them a lead they will fight back.”
The motions read like a prolonged cry for help.
But delegates who called for a general election and a fightback received the most enthusiastic applause.
Union leaders should lead a fight against the Tories—rather than looking to social partnership with bosses or waiting for a general election.
As Cherry said, “This is the time to fight—the Tories are weak.”