The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 28th September 2018

Disposable workers use ’em up and throw ’em away

by Daphne Liddle

A RECENT stay in hospital made me aware that working 12-hour shifts is now the norm for ward nurses in the NHS — and that this is leaving them totally exhausted and undermining their long-term health. It came as a surprise to see the same nurses who brought round the early morning medications still around up to 8pm in the evening and when I spoke to them about it they all said they found the long shifts were “killers”.

Most of them were young women and many of them mothers so they could not go home and collapse in a chair — there were children to be fed and put to bed and other household chores before they could snatch a brief night’s sleep, and then get up and do it all over again.

Nursing is a strenuous job, entailing being on one’s feet for most of the shift and involving a lot of lifting. Most of the nurses I spoke to had bad backs, shoulders, knees or hips.

One nurse told me she had tried everything to improve her bad back from Pilates, various exercises, pills and herbs — everything except rest, that is. “We’ve got to pay the bills” she said.

She told me she had applied for a transfer to outpatient working, which is not so strenuous and more like normal ‘office hours’; but those hours did not fit with her schedule for picking up her children from school. She had four young children aged between four and 11, and could not contemplate leaving them to bring themselves home from school until the youngest was at least 11, so another seven years before she could transfer to work that would be easier on her back.

I asked her if it would make any difference if the hospital provided childcare for her children. She said it would make it would be great and make it possible for her to transfer immediately to outpatient working and a normal seven or eight-hour day.

That hospital employs hundreds of women, many of whom are mothers, yet there is no provision for childcare. They spoke of another hospital a few miles away that did once provide childcare — “but that was cut due to efficiency savings”.

I asked one or two, did they realise these long hours will undermine their long-term health. They were well aware but the problems of meeting this month’s bills loomed closer.

By middle age these young workers will be permanently damaged. The bad backs and the stress will take their toll and many will have to be signed off sick long before they reach retirement age. Then they will be forced to join the growing army of former health workers trying to claim disability benefits whilst the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will treat them like undeserving scroungers. How will they pay their bills then?

The Government is their employer and is imposing working conditions that will wreck these workers’ health long before old age. It cannot plead ignorance; the evidence that excessive long hours cause serious long-term damage and shorten life is overwhelming. The Tory government is using these workers up, working them until their health breaks and then throwing them on the scrap heap. Perhaps they think it will save money on elderly care if these young people do not survive to old age.

I did ask these nurses if they were in a union. They are all in Unison. How on earth did Unison acquiesce to these working conditions?

Later I realised that 12-hour shifts are rapidly becoming the norm throughout the whole world of work in Britain. It began with zero-hours contracts and in the notorious ‘gig economy’, where workers are deemed to be self-employed, denied holiday and sickness pay and given so much work to do that it cannot be done in less than 12 hours — but that is their responsibility because they are supposed to organise their own working hours. They agree to it because the thing they fear most is not having enough work and falling deeper into debt than they already are because their wages are so low.

But how is it that workers who employed by the Government and are members of trade unions are falling into the same trap? We all know that the European Union ‘working time directive’ has been a joke from the beginning but workers in trade unions should be doing better than this.

Looking into it more closely most of them are, in theory, only supposed to do three, or at the most four, of these killer 12-hour shifts per week. Even so, work arranged in this way would still undermine their health. But cuts to staffing throughout the whole public sector mean that most work places are seriously under-staffed. This means the supervisors, or low-level management, are forever asking workers to volunteer to cover extra shifts. And the workers are eager to volunteer for this because they are all in debt, or at risk of getting into debt, because their wages will not cover the basic essentials of survival for them and their children.

The unions comply because they know the workers are desperate to get these extra shifts — even if it means literally working themselves into an early grave. And how can union reps complain to bosses about the excess hours when the workers have eagerly volunteered for all the hours they can get?

The root of the problem is the shockingly low wages but the long hours solve a lot of the bosses’ problems. In the NHS it means they have to employ far fewer very expensive agency nurses to cover gaps in staffing. It means they can cut staff to two-thirds of what was previously considered a full complement of staff because they have only two shifts a day to cover instead of three. And it leaves workers too tired to think much about their long-term health, to complain or agitate or become active in their union. When these workers have done their shifts, finally got home, got the children fed and into bed, all they want to do is grab as much sleep as they can before the next shift.

There have been many studies around the world into the physical and mental effects of long-term long-hours working. Some studies have reported numerous adverse health effects, including increased alcohol and tobacco usage, decreased birthweight in offspring and decreased cognitive functioning.

One Australian study of 18,420 workers over a 12-year period revealed poorer mental health in workers with long working hours. The researchers noted a 48 per cent increased probability regarding mental health decline in those workers working 49—59 hours per week, compared with those under standard working hours (that is, 35—40 hours per week). The probability increased by 53 per cent in those working more than 60 hours per week. They also found a difference by gender; amongst those working 49—59 hours per week, the SF-36 score are lower amongst female than male, indicating worse mental health amongst female workers.

A different survey followed 2,960 middle-age full-time workers consisting of 2,248 men and 712 women. The results revealed a 267 per cent increase in depression symptoms and a 284 per cent increase in anxiety symptoms amongst those female workers working more than 55 hours per week compared with those under standard working hours (35—40 hours per week).

They also indicated a trend that for every 10-hour increase in weekly working hours, an associated 40 per cent increase in depression symptoms and 31 per cent increase in anxiety symptoms were noted.

Long working hours also result in an increase in suicidal thoughts. Research conducted in south Korea recruited 67,471 participants, and the results revealed 30 per cent higher suicidal ideation amongst workers having working hours more than 60 hours (31 per cent increase in male workers and 33 per cent increase in female workers).

In summary, mental effects related to long shift working include lower working satisfaction, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Amongst these, depression and anxiety are more predominant amongst female workers. Some research has proposed probable reasons for the gender difference. Female workers tend to have more household responsibilities after work, which contributes to their mental stress.

So, the proposals put forward by TUC general Secretary Francis O’Grady at the recent TUC conference to allow workers to enjoy the fruits of technical advances in production by reducing the working week to just four days will seem like a cruel joke to millions of workers in the real world, who would be glad to have the same working hours as their own grandparents in the 1950s and ‘60s.