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The reality of being an NHS midwife is even tougher than you think

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Leah Sinclair
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As a new Royal College of Midwives survey found that 57% of respondents are planning to leave the NHS, Stylist spoke to two women about what it’s like to work for the health service today.

“I take home the pressure of my job every day. I lie in bed most of the time thinking: ‘Have I done enough?’”

Those are the words of Kiera, a midwife who has been working for the NHS for two years.

Kiera is one of the many midwives facing difficulties while working tirelessly for the health service, which is facing a mass exodus as many are planning to leave in droves.

A recent Royal College of Midwives survey found midwives were concerned about delivering safe care with many considering leaving the NHS next year.

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Of the 1,273 midwives and maternity support workers who responded to the survey, 57% told the union they were planning to leave within the next 12 months, with 5% having already done so – something which Kiera has considered herself.

“I’ve definitely thought about it and I think the majority of people I work with talk about the possibility of leaving every shift we go on,” she reveals.

“I know midwives that work on the side to make extra money because they don’t want to bank shifts in the hospital because they’re more than happy to go and work in a takeaway as there’s not a lot of stress with it.”

For Kiera, midwifery has always been her calling, as she watched her mother and other women around her pursue this passion.

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“It was always something I wanted to do. I just like the idea of women coming together to support each other and I’ve now been doing that and working within maternity services for about five years.”

This passion remains within Kiera to this day – but the constant struggles midwives face creates a divide between doing something she loves and also ensuring her own wellbeing.

“When I started training, we always had enough staff and it was really rare for us to take agency staff at the last minute,” she recalls.

“However, when I qualified, we started using them a lot more and with Covid, it just feels like everybody’s gone. 

“Midwives who are approaching retirement age are deciding to take early retirement because it’s not worth staying any longer and putting their health at risk, while pregnant midwives are shielding and it’s just becoming increasingly difficult.”

While there have always been challenges working for the health service, Kiera feels they have been accelerated due to the pandemic, making it even harder for midwives and maternity support staff.

In the RCM survey, concerns over staffing levels was the top reason for staff wanting to leave, with two thirds not being satisfied with the quality of care they could provide – something that Kiera sees and experiences on a day-to-day basis.

“The challenges that we had before have just been exacerbated by Covid. Understaffing remains a really big issue and we’ve now got a backlog of things to catch up on in terms of appointments with women and giving them the support that they need. 

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“But we’re sort of running on empty and because the outside world has started to go back to normal, sometimes that’s quite hard for families using the service to realise. 

“It’s different here in hospitals.”

One of the key difficulties that many midwives face is the desire to make sure sufficient care is given. But with a lack of staff support, resources and funds, this gets harder and harder each day.

“We’re really lucky in this country that midwives in the UK are trained to an exceptionally high standard so that every student midwife that qualifies is capable of giving world-class care,” says Leah, a midwife of eigh years.

“But unfortunately what midwives find very quickly upon entering the system is that they are prevented from giving that level of care because of the flaws of the system itself. 

“What we’re seeing now are midwives feeling completely burnt out, frustrated, anxious, demoralised, and in some cases, traumatised.”

Leah qualified as a midwife in 2013 and has seen the system undergo a series of changes that have left many like her fighting for their own wellbeing.

“It’s always been hard but I think the role is a lot more challenging and complex than most people realise,” she says.

“Over the last eight years, I’ve seen a lot of changes due to a variety of factors from understaffing to lack of adequate resources.

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“With 57% of midwives considering leaving, it just goes to show how drastically things have deteriorated.”

For Leah, these challenges led her to make the decision to cut down her hours, which she says has made a massive difference to her mental health.

“By reducing my hours quite substantially, I’ve taken back some control over how and when I work,” she shares.

“It has allowed me to be fully present when I’m there and to give better care.”

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While cutting back her hours has been a benefit, Leah acknowledges that this isn’t feasible for everyone and that it’s key that the system is reformed to ensure the best wellbeing for maternity staff and their patients.

“There needs to be a massive cultural change in the way that we prioritise the health of women and families. We actually provide the foundation for public health for a lifetime – not only the mother but her entire family.

“I think if we had that better understanding and appreciation for the role of the midwife, that the funding and the resourcing would naturally follow.”

For midwives looking for support, visit the Royal College of Midwives website.

Images: Getty