Stressed nurse wins landmark ruling

A FORMER nurse has told of the stress caused by ward cutbacks at cash-strapped Ipswich Hospital after winning a landmark ruling.Sarah Knights, from Parham, near Framlingham, said she suffered nine months of stress as nurses had to work with increasingly stretched resources, which she claims was putting them and patients at risk.

A FORMER nurse has told of the stress caused by ward cutbacks at cash-strapped Ipswich Hospital after winning a landmark ruling.

Sarah Knights, from Parham, near Framlingham, said she suffered nine months of stress as nurses had to work with increasingly stretched resources, which she claims was putting them and patients at risk.

She was speaking out after a year-long legal battle with the hospital to prove that her experiences on Washbrook Ward were to blame for her “stress breakdown”.

The Heath Road hospital had denied that she suffered an industrial injury, but a tribunal has supported the 42-year-old - believed to be one of the first cases of its kind to be brought successfully against the NHS.


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Now Mrs Knights has said she wants to send a message to other nurses at the troubled hospital who may be under similar pressure - urging them to take action.

But the hospital trust last night said it did not share her perspective, adding that the time Mrs Knights was working was “very, very busy” and the ward is now different.

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Mrs Knights said: “I used to be proud to work at Ipswich Hospital and proud to be a nurse but I feel all my hard work and dedication has been betrayed. I know other people feel like that now.

“I can't sit back anymore and not do anything. I think it's wrong that the hospital management are reassuring the public by saying that patient care will not suffer - well in my view it already is. It was suffering two years ago.”

A nurse since the age of 20, including eight years of continuous service, the mother-of-three compared conditions she experienced on Washbrook Ward to a “madhouse”.

She had worked on the short-stay ward since 2001, dealing with patients undergoing elective or routine surgery for conditions such as hernias, minor chest surgery or ear, nose and throat surgery.

But in July 2004 - when the trust's budgetary pressures began to bite - she said emergency admissions to the ward started to increase due to a bed shortage in the hospital.

Many of these patients were elderly and nurse-dependent but staffing levels remained the same, she said.

Mrs Knights, who says she will never return to nursing, said she regularly raised concerns with managers that patients could not be “competently” and “safely” managed - but she said her concerns went unheeded.

From November 2004, the pressure became “relentless” - nurses had little time for meal breaks, were working longer hours, juggling their tasks and felt unsupported by senior managers, she said.

She claimed there was “constant pressure and harassment” through each shift from senior nursing staff and bed-site managers so targets could be met.

Her ongoing feelings of stress culminated with an incident on March 21 last year, when a patient shouted at her, leaving her panicky and shaky, coming after another incident when a heroin addict made threats to kill.

Days later, when a colleague phoned her, she collapsed at the thought of returning to work.

She went off sick from the hospital on March 29 and the breakdown she suffered was so bad that she could not return without having a panic attack - even when her son needed an X-ray.

Mrs Knights, formerly an active horse-rider, was later diagnosed with ME and has had debilitating physical symptoms, which she believes is a result of the psychological impact.

She went to a number of meetings with the hospital staff but she claimed the process of managing her absence was “terribly slow, inconsistent and at times unacceptable”.

Her employment with the trust eventually ended on June 22 as a result of physical incapacity.

She said her stress was not caused by her inability to cope with the excessive workloads and demands, but because of the hospital's system of work.

Supported by her local MP, Sir Michael Lord, she took the hospital to a tribunal on the basis of the incident on March 21 and it found, on appeal, that this and succeeding events amounted to an accident at work causing psychological injury to her health.

This means she is now entitled to receive industry injury benefits and to claim for a pay-out.

But Mrs Knights said: “I am not doing this for the money, I am doing it for the principle. I think the situation at the hospital may be worse now than it was while I was there.”

Jan Rowsell, spokeswoman for Ipswich Hospital, said: “We would just like to clarify that the tribunal referred to was a decision taken by the Tribunal Service of the Social Security and Child Support Appeals. It was not an employment tribunal.

“This is Sarah's perspective. It is not a perspective that we share. We do take our duty of care towards our staff very seriously and make every effort to ensure there is a safe system of work in place.

“What we are aware of is that during the time Sarah refers to staff felt conditions were more demanding than those that they had previously experienced.

“Since this time the ward has actually changed so it is a very different picture now.

“The period of time Sarah highlights was acknowledged as being a very, very busy time so the level of activity on the Washbrook Ward and the trust at the time was high but we have worked with our colleagues throughout the NHS to significantly reduce the pressure.

“But at all times any risk issues arising on the ward were dealt with appropriately.”

rebecca.sheppard@eadt.co.uk

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