Written by John Johnson, Editor of Emergency Services News:
‘Just before going to bed on Friday evening, at around 23:30 hours, I did my usual check of the various ‘channels’ which we use to stay up-to-date with all things related to the emergency services, NHS and armed forces.
During these routine checks, I came across some information which genuinely unsettled me.
Three East of England Ambulance Service (EEAST) personnel had taken their own lives within the last 11 days.
Our information suggested that two were highly respected and well-liked paramedics, and one was an equally as well respected and well-liked emergency call handler.
I felt a deep sense of sorrow for our three colleagues from EEAST and a deep sense of empathy for their family, friends and colleagues.
Our thoughts are with their family, friends and colleagues.
I also found out that a paediatric nurse, based at Southend Hospital, had also taken her own life just weeks after getting married.
Our information suggests that her husband is a paramedic, but we cannot confirm this.
As many of our regular readers may already know, I have had the honour and privilege of not only serving in the military but of serving in the Met Police on a 999 response team in the east end of London as well as the RNLI.
Anyone who has served in the emergency services, especially on the front line, will probably share a deep sense of loyalty and empathy with their colleagues.
This is for both serving and retired emergency services/NHS personnel.
Part of the reason behind this emotional ‘link’ is that when you have been called to critical incidents or life-and-death situations, then you tend to form a bond with the people who you are working alongside.
The same thing happens in the military as well.
A personal example that I can give is of the 7/7 attacks which happened in London back in 2005.
During that dark day, and in the immediate aftermath, you end up building a close emotional relationship with the people who you served with, whether they were from the London Fire Brigade, the London Ambulance Service or the Met Police.
So this is why, despite retiring from the Met several years ago, I still have an enormous sense of empathy for my colleagues who are still serving on the front line of the emergency services/NHS.
When I set up Emergency Services News, just over one year ago, I made it a part of our mission to ‘lookout’ for the welfare of anyone who has served on the front line of the emergency services.
So after learning about the tragic loss of four colleagues within such a short period of time, I lay in bed for hours trying to figure out what may have led to our colleagues taking their own lives.
My own experience with this very sensitive subject is that a member of my own family and a former Met colleague both took their own lives.
So, I used our various anonymous channels to reach out to East of England Ambulance Service personnel so that I can hear from them directly as to what might be going on.
The response we got was overwhelming.
Over 40 staff made contact with our team – on the condition of anonymity – to share their perspectives, opinions and experiences with us.
Just to be clear, the aim of this article is not to try and find out precisely what led to our four colleagues taking their own lives.
That is far beyond our remit, and it is not our place to speculate on these tragic events
But I am interested in trying to find out if there is perhaps an underlying element of stress and emotional trauma that is making our colleagues in the NHS endure a level of hardship and anxiety that is beyond what we who have/do served/serve deem as being ‘acceptable’ and as ‘a part of the job’.
What we found out, sent shivers down my spine.
The responses we received from the brave people who communicated with us made me genuinely worry for the welfare of the brave and selfless men and women who dedicate their lives to saving yours and your families lives.
I do not feel that it is for me to interpret what we have been told or to summarise the information which has been shared with us.
Instead, I think that it is perhaps best to allow you to read the accounts which have been shared with us by the men and women who work in the East of England Ambulance Service; from their own mouths.
The accounts below have only been changed where necessary to protect the identity of the individuals who we managed to make contact with.
Here’s what we were told:
“There are numerous issues that could have led up to this, but I’m sure the problems are the same in other trusts.
1) constant late finishes
2) no support from management after big jobs,
3) when on surge level three the Trust removes polices to suit themselves”.
“There is a general feeling that the Trust’s wellbeing provisions, while well-intentioned, are not met by an equivalent empathetic culture from management – who seem more concerned with sickness rates and harassing staff for updates on their absence.
“I think the message we’d like to send is in these areas and sending support to the families involved.
“I hope this is of some help”.
“Better public education [is needed].
“The ambulance is not a taxi service for GP’s.
“More staff, stop the rota changes that’ll mean less staff overnight.
“Bring us in line with the fire and police regarding retirement age.
“Help older members of staff more, retain experience rather than forcing them to leave or making them leave due to capability.
“Management bullying needs to stop.
“Need better managers rather than having a friends circle at the top.
“Better training and career progression. Support for staff retention.
“EEAST is too big a service, bring back the three services or stop crews going across borders. It’s the same old problems really”.
“Too much is being put on the staff, and they are stretched too thin.
“The mileage that the crews and cars cover are horrendous and dangerous.
“Physical and mental exhaustion is damaging patient treatment. Are mistakes being made, who knows?”
“They (EEAST) have put in place specialist trauma therapists that we can talk to until the 4th if we are struggling with emotions etc.”.
“There were many of us sat in the crew room, discussing what has happened.
“Although this has brought us all closer together and heightened our awareness of suicide, there is a feeling that we are waiting for the next person.
“We all feel it’s a ‘when’ not and ‘if’ for the next person.
“It’s a strange feeling looking at your colleagues thinking about who is next.
“It’s a really awful feeling to have.
“In Norfolk, there has been a massive increase in Mental Health, suicide and attempted suicide jobs.
“I know of someone who has dealt with 5 in the last three shifts, with colleagues also dealing with two teenage suicides.
“We get support if we do a big trauma job or a bad arrest, but I feel it’s the suicide jobs we need the support on”.
“There is generally very low morale in this Trust, with staff feeling demotivated and massive rates of unhappy staff leaving the Trust.
“We are almost always late off.
“We often drive over 125 miles on night shifts.
“There’s also vast numbers of staff on relief currently, which I think does have a significant impact on the wellbeing of staff and ease of getting support from peers after hard jobs.
“Most of the issues within this Trust are not only limited to this Trust obviously, but it is a huge problem.
“I think there’s a lot of talk about the Chief Exec making changes, but obviously those sorts of things take ages to filter down to actual road staff.”
“I can tell you as someone that is suffering from PTSD and depression through the job the support is cr*p referrals take months, and in the meantime, you get very little support from management.
“I have previously had to go NHS wellbeing…
“They don’t specialise on PTSD or understand what we go through, so it’s not much help.
“We have an epidemic when it comes to MH problems, and no-one seems to care.”
“I’ve worked for EEAST for ** years…
“I’ve previously accessed mental health support from EEAST and have had a lot of support, so I do not think the services aren’t in place however the strain, pressure and workload we are under I believe is the critical factor.
“Although trust-wide there is a problem with recruitment and retention, this is a particular issue in the control room where staffing has been incredibly low for the last 3 or 4 years.
“I know for a fact there have been incidences where only 1 or 2 call handlers have been taking 999 calls for the three largest counties of the six that EEAST’s patch covers.
“Staff members would dread coming into work knowing they aren’t going to get a break, knowing they will be working flat out for 12/13 hours and knowing they will receive abuse from members of the public demanding an ambulance.
“People are leaving because they cannot simply work under this amount of pressure.
“The Recruitment/HR department is incompetent.
“When they do hire staff, 3 or 4 months down the line it’s discovered the member of the team they employed do not have the relevant qualifications for the post and are subsequently fired.
“Or members of staff have waited up to 6 months for a simple piece of paperwork to be produced all the while they are out of pocket.
“I’ve found our operational managers to be very supportive and approachable; however, senior management is young, inexperienced and have no backbone or common sense.
“A recent example is a crew who responded to a patient complaining of a smell of gas and felt unwell.
“The crew were on scene for nearly 2 hours (there was no ‘gas’ leak), but it was later confirmed there had been a carbon monoxide leak that they had been exposed to for those 2 hours while caring for this patient.
“The crew began to feel unwell, but were told by senior management that if they were to go sick, they would lose their overtime incentive payment!!
“Even though the Trust is understaffed, staff members have been waiting years literally to move off of the relief rota and onto a permanent line with a permanent crewmate.
“The relief rota removes any wish of having a work/life balance!
“I do enjoy working for the Trust, and there are positives, but obviously with recent events, something is clearly going wrong somewhere.
“Whether it is the things I’ve mentioned above, I don’t know…”
“**** yrs ago I started in EEAST and back then we had the chance of hitting standby points to breath, reflect, relax/ study before our next call.
“Now we clear and another job sent through immediately.
“It’s very rare now to hit standby, and if we do, there is not even time to click the kettle on.
“2. Because of the above we are now taking work home and this is effecting our home life.
“Such as emotions we were bottling all day as we need to “put on a brave face” and transition from a terrible job to GP urgent or ‘granny down’ or reading up on things we no longer have time to do during work time.
“3. Home Relationships break down, social circles disappear due to above-bottled emotion, missing important life events, failing to keep plans due to late finish times.
“4. We all care about every patient we go to, but no one cares about us. It’s all targets.
“5. The guilt trip emails… ‘green in 15 will help prevent your colleagues from finishing late’… green in 15 barely gives us time to breathe.
“We know it’s only to meet target times for jobs in the stack, that we get sent to up to the last second of our shift.
“Targets should be abolished. It’s killing us.
“6. The inability of the service to say no to patients that call or suggesting taking one of their five cars to the hospital rather than a “free” big yellow taxi for their tummy ache or runny nose.
“Majority of the time taken themselves would have been quicker!
“7. Sometimes we go to calls where the patient has said ‘we knew there was no chance getting to see the GP, we were 50th in the queue.’
This causes us a huge amount of frustration as we sit on the scene calling the GP for appointments.
“8. The stresses and pressure of hospital avoidance. Rethinking over and over is this the right decision. Am I missing something? Any doubts and they go in, and we get questioned by nurses streaming.
“9. That full day of mental health jobs. One after another. Takes its toll and shouldn’t be a job the EMERGENCY service goes to.
“No thought into crews being sent to one after another.
“10. All services and pathways we use are under extreme pressures, and we take the brunt of this as we are the only ones that say yes, we will come to you.
“11. We get taught resilience rather than fixing the problems within the service.
“12. No real wellbeing support which doesn’t just involve talking to someone.
“13. Having to plan your finish times at patients houses/hospitals with a fear of getting another job when clearing meaning hours late off.
“When the last 15mins should be protected for drug/equipment offloading/debriefing, so you’re not taking it all home 14.
“There is just too much to fix, and no one listening.
“We are bursting at the seams and bleeding out our best members of staff. It’s time to start healing us.
“15. Staff will just need to learn to be selfish and take care of their own needs… which is against our nature… we feel bad for having sick days especially for stress as we know people need us, so it stresses us out more.
“It’s the reason we joined the service in the first place.
“16. The BBR scrapped family rotation lines because apparently working and missing out on family time is more critical to the Trust.
“So much for the “maintain a good work-life balance.”
“17. We all just need some “me” time.
“Things desperately need to change before more amazing lives are lost.
“This is all I can think of for now. I hope this helps and I hope it pushes things to change for the future”.
“My only thoughts are that although east of England ambo service says it does all it can to help, it doesn’t.
“I only knew the dispatcher from over the radio, but he was always lovely to us.
“He always started each shift with a message sent through on the MDT with a joke, which always made us smile and eased us into shift well.
“all the red tape around the job and the stresses are coming from the political side.
“The types of jobs we go to, the distances we travel, the lack of support (not from local managers but the higher-ups) is personally, what I believe to be the main morale issue”.
“There is a massive bullying culture currently from management.
“We are all being worked to within an inch of our lives, sent miles out of the area, travelling long distances for high category calls, and then finishing late every shift because they’ve left someone on the floor for 8 hours, and the hospitals are all at breaking point too!!
“We are having new rotas forced upon us, and those of us on relief were blocked from voting because we outnumber the staff on lines and they want to get it through.
“We are not offered lines until it’s all in, so there aren’t enough people to object.
“When you tell them you can’t make the new time they will make no effort to look at other people who may prefer the shift they are giving you, they just force you to have to be late, but make you feel bad for it.
“So many times as I leave for work in the darkness, and I head down my stairs on the cold walk to my car, I think about not having to go in if I fell down the stairs.
“It’s not a healthy environment at all, and management are driving us to it.
“Thank you for actually asking us if we’re ok, and caring to lift the lid on this. We are not ok x.”
“job pressure, excessive mileage, especially on nights and low morale within the service can’t have helped.”
“Unfortunately I think it’s the same rhetoric that is experienced up and down the country by emergency service workers…
“Here in EEAST, we are under extreme pressures to meet targets, provide gold standard care under a system that has gone beyond breaking point.
“Emotional and mental support is lacking at best!
“In house, bullying is left unpunished and wound up in a bureaucracy system that leaves the victims vulnerable to further targeting.
“We are haemorrhaging senior paramedics who simply have had enough of being beaten by a system that cares more about numbers than people and will penalise you for taking time off to repair your broken mental health.
“The local management team are just as worn down and disenfranchised, tasked with managing enormous teams which leaves individuals susceptible to falling through the cracks.
“We know they care, but the reality is that that sentiment doesn’t always translate to practice as there are simply not enough resources or hours in the day.
“We are under increasing pressure; late finishes are a regular occurrence (I personally have had a 7hr late finish on a 12hr night).
“More and more staff are off with stress-related illness/problems.
“Disiplinaries for time off sick, so staff reporting for a shift when unfit through health or mental health.
“The support is out there, but as with many mental health problems, the help is either not sort early enough, or it’s slow in coming.
“I love my job, but I struggle to make ends meet as do many of my colleagues.
“I relied on overtime to get by, and that has now dried up due to a recent influx of apprentice staff.
“Some staff with family have to rely on food banks.
“We are permanently tired and under pressure.
“I have been with the Trust for ** years, and like many others, I am now looking elsewhere for work.
“I, unfortunately, didn’t get the chance to meet any of the staff personally, but I had spoken to the dispatcher many times via the radio as he was one of our dispatchers.
“What I can tell you is that there is widespread anger growing at how the Trust has handled it.
“It’s not really been adequately addressed aside from an email giving us phone numbers to contact if we need to talk.
“We’ve also been asked to not talk to anyone press-related about it.
“Now, this feels more like they are trying to control the narrative and suppress our views, rather than actually let people know how three brilliant members of staff thought this was their only option.
“We’ve also had three different members of staff this week in tears, all because they feel pressured and stressed because of how they are being treated by management.
“People feel like policies are actively being used against them instead of to support them (sickness policy, for example).
“One member of staff had their contract terminated because of sickness this week who had been in the Trust for 18 years…
“I suppose what I’m saying is that the whole culture is pretty toxic at the moment and in my opinion”.
The responses above are just some which we received via our anonymised channels.
We could not share the other 23 responses, as they contain too much personnel information.
I genuinely and sincerely hope that, by sharing the voices of the unheard, then something is done about this extremely worrying situation.
EEAST has recently appointed a new Chief Executive, and we must give him time to make the changes which have been promised.
But I genuinely feel that our politicians have a lot to answer for.
Imposing ‘targets’ on the ambulance service is wrong.
Targets are for sales teams, not for the emergency ambulance service.
Of course, KPI’s are essential, but ambulance crews and control room staff should not be run into the ground because they have targets to meet.
Here at ESN, we cannot change policies, but we can continue to act as a voice for our colleagues.
We can also continue to try and think of ways to help support emergency services and NHS personnel.
For some time now, I have been thinking of setting up a charity that can help to look after the welfare of emergency services & NHS personnel.
But events over the last 11 days and the loss of four colleagues has made me think that now is the time to bring this charity into existence.
However, not knowing anything about setting up charities, then we need to do some more research.
If you have any experience of this area, then please feel free to contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org
Once the elections have taken place on the 12th December, then we will send this article over to whoever is the Health Secretary.
We will also send this article over to EEAST to give them a chance to respond.
We will publish their response just as soon as we have it.
I would like to thank personally those who communicated with us.
I sincerely hope that EEAST does not waste valuable time and resources trying to figure out who it was that shared their thoughts with us.
The men and women on the front line of the emergency services and NHS MUST be heard.
Especially at a time when they have lost four of their colleagues.
May their souls rest in peace.
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