Peter (not his real name) has been a paramedic with an NHS regional ambulance service in the south of England for almost 20 years. He took two months’ sick leave because of stress in 2015.
I once turned up at a house where a woman and her daughter were crying hysterically because her husband – a man in his 30s – had passed away from a heart attack. And then the couple’s son came home from school to find his dad lying there and his mum and sister in that state. It was awful. I ended up crying with the family while we waited an hour for the police to arrive.
You do become emotionally involved. You end up putting things like that, which you have witnessed or dealt with, into a filing cabinet in your head, but over the course of a career that filing cabinet fills up.
Paramedics get stressed for many reasons and the dramatically increased demands on NHS ambulance services in the last four or five years have only made that worse.
The job can be stressful and upsetting anyway, given you’re treating an injury or illness or dealing with someone who might die. You’ve got to treat the patient, and deal with anxious relatives. That’s all very tiring and pressurising and very stressful.
And we’re under growing stress because there are too few paramedics to deal properly with the number of people calling 999 and then being sent an ambulance. We’re busy all the time. The response times we’re meant to stick to are a big part of that.
The bosses transfer the pressure they’re under to meet those performance targets on to us. We’re micro-managed by people who spend all day looking at computer screens, checking how response times are going.
We’re supposed to answer Red 1 and Red 2 calls – the most urgent ones – within eight minutes. But the reality of an understaffed service that hasn’t invested in more staff to keep up with growing demand means that that can take 20-30 minutes.
My ambulance service covers a rural part of the country. I’ve ended up driving 50-60 miles to respond to an urgent call, because there was no one else nearer to attend. Driving all that way at high speed, with a blue light on, is very stressful, believe me.
Then there’s the hours. We’re meant to work 12-hour shifts. But it’s never just 12 hours; it’s usually 13, 14 or 15. And we do four shifts in a row. The closure of ambulance stations is a massive issue too. Traditionally paramedics have seen them as almost their homes and the other people working there as like their family, but closures mean we have fewer and fewer of such places that we can come back to and discuss the ups and downs of the day with people who understand.
Stress is very common, especially among those who’ve been on the job for 15-20 years; their coping mechanisms aren’t as fresh as among the younger paramedics. Four of the 30 paramedics at my ambulance station have been off with stress over the last few years. They just couldn’t face coming in for another run of 14- or 15-hour shifts.
I’ve had time off myself for that reason. Two years ago I needed almost two months off because I was so stressed from the demands of the job. The pressure on me had become unreasonable. My stress was quite severe and I’ve never fully recovered, to be honest. My family say it’s really aged me. It’s taken a massive toll.
I’ve seen colleagues with 30 years in the service suddenly decide that they can’t do the job any longer because they can’t cope with all the different demands on us. I’ve got to the point where I don’t want to put my green uniform on any more.