Sink or Swim – Student Nursing on the NHS’s Birthday

Supernumerary‘ is a term used within healthcare to describe a member of staff who is in excess to the safe staffing levels. The NMC (Nursing & Midwifery Council) assure us that these staff are not essential to the safe running of a department on a daily basis, but rather present for other reasons, i.e. newly qualified nurses who are still required to have some mentorship. As a student nurse, I am guaranteed supernumerary status; my role is purely to learn.

However, as I sit on the crowded 06:12 train to King’s Cross, I feel anything but supernumerary. I have an 8 am start and a whole lot of work ahead of me. Whilst I don’t disagree with the NMC assuring us this status, it is becoming more and more clear that student nurses are playing a much bigger role than any of us would like. The line between student and HCA (Health Care Assistant) is often pretty blurred, only really being defined by the badges we have to wear and the constant state of mild confusion that is present in a student. As HCA and student become closer to the same thing, the more pressure the nurses are put under.

One nurse who is covering the work of two and the HCAs just called in sick? Great! The student can run obs and clean beds. This is not to place any of the blame of nurses – in my previous article I outlined the huge pressure nurses are under right now – the wards are a sink or swim environment, you either find a way to make it work or wreck yourself trying.

Student nurses, we are the ones who have the time to talk to our patients, hold their hands when they’re afraid, listen to their worries.

Fortunately, students talk to each other (totally weird I know) so throughout the first year of my training, I’ve built up a basic knowledge of most of the wards in my trust, i.e.,  which ones are good to work in and which are like stepping into the depths of hell. In this way, students at least have some warning of the pain that awaits us.

My trust makes an effort to connect us together once a week in Forum – a space we can go to once a week and get the last 7 days of insanity off our chest. Each week has the same unintended rhythm, we start off sharing any particularly exciting or weird experiences we’ve encountered – from the therapy puppies to a spider bite by means of a Lidl banana – before progressing into the questioning phase.

This part is where we get to ask the clinical educators the answer to any questions that may have popped into our heads. This week we started with the likelihood of police handcuffs causing pressures ulcers – somewhat unlikely – and progressed to the hot topic of break allowances. So many nurses do not regularly take the full amount of break they are entitled to in a shift. Talking to my qualified colleagues I can see how the line between work and break can become blurred. Commonly, the is translated to nurses not getting any breaks at all and while this might be true in some places, it is more frequent for nurses to cut their own breaks short. Whether this is by choice or by necessity is up for debate.

I’m barely a month into my current placement and I’ve already seen so many examples in every part of the spectrum. As a student nurse, I do get my breaks. This often comes with warnings that I should enjoy it while I can because it’ll all go to hell once I qualify. Quite frankly, I already feel that I might have thrown myself under the vocational bus. As I write this on my commute – at the end of my third 48 hour week – I feel like a reanimated corpse. Do the geography students have to get up at 6 am every day? Maybe not, but at least I’ll be debt free when I qualify… oh, wait! Nevermind.

On the plus side, unlike the other university students, I get to wear pyjamas to work like the totally cool person I am.

And unlike other students, I get to be part of an institution that has been part of British living – and dying – for exactly 70 years. With everything that is going on in the NHS right now, I still go home every night with a sense of pride in myself and what I’m doing. The work is hard, the hours are long, but when I do my work well my patients get the best care I can provide. Right now, I can’t say that my nursing skills are up to much but I’m going to get better. I may be supernumerary but I matter.

Student nurses, we are the ones who have the time to talk to our patients, hold their hands when they’re afraid, listen to their worries. While I may suck at some of the practical stuff, I can feedback to the nurses my patient’s needs and advocate on their behalf.

Yesterday, around the country trusts celebrated their heritage by throwing tea parties within the hospital. While I fully agree that we needed to mark the occasion, did they really have to create an event that almost no staff members could attend? I was lucky, instead of afternoon forum, we students were allowed to wander around and enjoy the celebration (and the free cake). But, most staff were left out. With wards to run and patients to care for, where was the time to enjoy this reward for 70 years of hard work and dedication? If this event wasn’t for the nurses or the doctors, who was it for? In my opinion, it was for the private clients of the hospital, the stakeholders and the donors. A pat on the back for their charity and an event to encourage them to give more. The nurses who make the NHS function were sidelined and left to work to exhaustion.

Students; the NHS is 70 years old, we have to be the ones to lead the nurses who came before us into the next era. One that hopefully allows us to do our jobs and take breaks; that allows us to have a functional service without compromising the well-being of its staff. The NHS has lasted for 70 years, let’s hope that it lasts for 70 more.


Florence N

Florence N is the "nom de plume" for those in the UK health care industry who wish to remain anonymous. Florence N does not represent a single individual or gender but may vary from article to article.

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