My life at work: working in mental health

Submitted by Matthew on 22 October, 2009 - 12:25

Stephen Michaels, a student nurse from East London, spoke to 'Solidarity'.

Tell us a little bit about the work you do.

I’m a student mental health nurse. I spend some time in classes, but mostly I’m in hospitals or out on community placements. It’s a lot of on the job training and we are treated as an extra pair of hands; my work involves talking to patients, getting them involved in their care — its very varied. There’s also loads of paperwork — mainly reports on patients and assessments.

Do you and your workmates get the pay and conditions you deserve?

Definitely not. Because of our status as students, we have no employment rights. We get a bursary of £7,500 a year, but that’s definitely not enough to live on — particularly in central London. Even though many of us are working full shifts, we’re not treated as workers in terms of our rights. With the proposed recruitment freeze in the NHS, there’s also no guarantee of a job at end of our three years of training.

Do you enjoy your work?

I enjoy working with patients. I don’t enjoy the NHS bureaucracy; the health service can be a very demoralising place to work in, and my university course is a mess. The NHS workforce is very fragmented and there are constant diktats coming down from management.

What are your bosses like?

The ward managers — the people we have most contact with — tend to be okay. Some individuals are better than others. But the management level above them, where the diktats come from, is a faceless bureaucracy.

A lot of the stress of the job is due to the privatisation agenda that management are pushing; there’s constant policy reform, and there’s a very low level of understanding of exactly what management do. That’s something that bosses deliberately inculcate by using impenetrable management-speak and buzzwords. It’s very dangerous. We want a health system that’s transparent, not baffling.

There’s a high degree of discontent amongst the workforce but unfortunately it often gets directed at other workers rather than at bosses.

Is there are union in your workplace? Does it do a good job?

There are several unions — Unison, Unite and the GMB all organise workers in the health service. But they’re all very weak and don’t have much presence in my workplaces. I’m in Unison; I want my union to get out agitating amongst the workforce, organising workers and running good campaigns that can bring people into the union structures and give them a chance to get active rather than lying down and taking everything that’s thrown at us. A lot of people see themselves as part of professional associations like the RCN rather than as workers with a trade union consciousness.

If you could change one thing about your workplace what would it be?

A sense that we're part of a collective that can influence things, instead of the poisonous blame culture. I’d scrap most of the bureaucracy, which only exists for the internal markets. And we need more staff so that we could have the time and freedom to develop quality nursing care conducive to patient care and recovery.

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