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‘No breaks, no food’ culture leaving NHS staff hungry and affecting care, says UNISON

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Working long shifts with few or no breaks and little or no food is never acceptable.

Overstretched NHS staff ​often have no time for breaks or food during ​their shifts and ​are worried this ​is affecting ​their ability to do their jobs, according to a UNISON survey published today (Wednesday).

More than half (53%) say they are unable to take regular breaks and almost one in six (16%) only have time to grab snacks like crisps or chocolate during busy shifts.

The figures are based on a survey of 8,573 health staff working in hospitals or mental health trusts across the UK. Some (7%) say they never take a break, one in seven (15%) only rarely and ​three in ten (31%) only do sometimes, according to the results.

UNISON says this non-stop work culture has been triggered by intolerable pressures on the NHS ​caused in part by staff shortages and the pandemic-related treatment backlog.

​According to the survey, even those ​health workers who can take a break ​often struggle to find somewhere quiet to unwind. Three in ten (31%) say there is nowhere dedicated for them to go before returning to their shift​s.

More than one in five (23%) say they sit in offices, 17% use their cars, 7% in corridors and 6% visit store cupboards. Others mention sitting at bus stops, in hospital chapels or spending ​their break time searching for free rooms.

Lack of – or poor quality – food on site is another major issue. More than three quarters (78%) of night workers and ​​almost six in ten (59%) of daytime staff say being hungry or thirsty affects the quality of their work at times.

More than a quarter (28%) are unable to eat a healthy meal during shifts, and 19% of these rely on take-outs because there is no on-site facility.

Almost a quarter (24%) say there is no staff restaurant on site. More than half (52%) say they have access to staff canteen that is only open until 8pm.

The quality of the food available was also an issue. More than half (56%) described what was on offer as unsatisfactory, while ​just 34% said it was adequate. ​Only one in ten (10%) judged it to be good.

UNISON head of health Sara Gorton said: “Working long shifts with few or no breaks and little or no food is never acceptable. But the situation is worse for staff when demand on health services is so high.

“Nurses, healthcare assistants and other NHS employees need proper spaces to unwind, not cupboards or corridors. Healthy food should also be available to sustain them during the long hours they work.

“Otherwise, workers will end up quitting for jobs that allow healthier, less stressful lifestyles. Everything possible must be done to end this ‘no breaks, no food’ culture. Staff can then focus on what they do best – providing quality care for patients.”

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