Sunday 18 August 2019

'I felt like I wasn't doing enough for patients because I was so overstretched' - Irish nurses on why they moved abroad

An overstretched public health service, poor salary scale, lack of incentives, few permanent posts and limited opportunities for career progression are just some of the reasons why Irish nurses leave our shores for a new life abroad...

(L-R) Aine O'Connor and Michelle Matthews
(L-R) Aine O'Connor and Michelle Matthews
Aine O'Connor
Michelle Matthews
Michelle Matthews on her first day at work in Abu Dhabi

Sasha Brady

Two Irish nurses speak out about their reasons for leaving Ireland and why they want things to change before moving home again.

Michelle Matthews (27) works as a nurse in Abu Dhabi

I never planned on leaving Ireland to work. I qualified as a nurse in in 2012 and St James' Hospital offered us contracts for three months but never renewed them despite the fact that they were short-staffed on every ward at the time.

We were told to join an agency and work shifts that way. The problem with an agency is that you cannot progress in your career, you are not guaranteed work and you don't get paid for holidays. You don't get paid for further education and training. Hospitals will only train up their permanent staff so if you're with an agency, you're not technically not counted as staff.*

As a result, out of approximately 85 nurses who trained with me and qualified at the same time as me, I think only about eight or 10 stayed in Ireland. Everybody else moved to the UK to work for the NHS.

I moved to London for two years and then came back to Ireland to work in Beaumont in the Oncology Department for two years and absolutely loved it. We had the most amazing team of nurses and doctors - leaving there was heartbreaking.

I moved to Abu Dhabi six weeks ago and we have been given options of post-graduate degrees, masters and general nursing courses that the hospital will fund.

We don't have an overcrowding issue in Abu Dhabi and that's not just true of my hospital, it's across the board. About 40 years ago they only had one hospital that was basically a mud hut in the desert and now that hospital is recognised as one of the best in the world.

It makes me so annoyed when I hear of plans for new hospitals at home and new projects the Government proposes to try and tackle the overcrowding issue. Each one is as ineffective as the last. They refuse to listen to the frontline about how to tackle these issues and it really is infuriating.

In the two years I was working in Ireland I could honestly see how bad the working conditions are for doctors and nurses. There is a massive burnout. Nurses and doctors support each other but there is very little support from anywhere else within the health service.

Another factor in my decision to move away was seeking a better quality of life. Despite the fact that my partner and I have what society considers 'good jobs' - he's in sales for a multinational company and I'm in nursing - if we wanted to save for a mortgage or have any quality of life in Ireland, we were going to have to move in with the parents.

We had been living together in Dublin in a very basic apartment and had been living pay cheque to pay cheque. It was so bittersweet because we loved living together but we could barely afford to do much else. If we actually wanted any chance of saving for a mortgage and enjoying the next few years, we had to move away. But since moving here I have a quality of life that is unimaginable at home.

Aine O'Connor (26) works as a nurse in London

I had always wanted to move to London. Initially I thought it was just going to be a year or two and then I had planned to move back and work in Ireland but hearing the stories from home and experiences from friends has kept me here longer than I had anticipated. I'll be in London four years next April. I work as an intensive care nurse in St Thomas' Hospital.

There are far more opportunities for progression and funded post graduate courses here. I was promoted after just two years. There are also a lot of specialist and advanced practice roles in London, an area I would like to get into eventually but I know these jobs are scarce and difficult to get into at home.

The HSE could learn a lot from the NHS when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff. They regularly run massive recruitment drives in the UK and abroad. There are lots of highly-skilled nurses working within the NHS (although this might change after Brexit) because they understand the system is one of the best.

Like Ireland, there are issues with overcrowding and staff shortages but nowhere near as bad as it is at home. A patient waiting on a trolley in A&E here for 72 hours would be headline news whereas it seems to be a daily occurrence in Ireland.

The NHS is becoming more and more stretched and with the rising cost of living in London, a lot of nurses are starting to leave. I'm considering it myself next year but I wouldn't move home. The situation there is far more dire.

Things would need to change drastically before I'd consider moving home permanently: such as increased salaries for nurses and safer working conditions. Nursing is an exhausting and draining job, why would you do it just to be making ends meet at the end of the month?

I became a nurse because I always had an interest in all things medical but also because I knew I wanted to have a job that made a difference to people's lives. Job satisfaction is a huge thing for me. I've an aunt who's a nurse and worked in Ireland throughout her entire career; she tried to talk me out of becoming a nurse. Sometimes I wish I had listened to her.

I'm a home bird and I'd love to be able to move home tomorrow but not at the expense of my quality of life. I knew I was never going to be rich getting into nursing but if I got paid enough to give me the same opportunities as other friends my age with a degree and qualifications, I think this would be a good start.

But the hardest thing about working at home for me was not feeling like I was doing enough for the patients because I was so overstretched.


*Responding to Michelle Matthews' comments about training in St James Hospital, a spokesperson for the hospital said:“St. James’s Hospital cannot comment on individual cases. However, it is now the policy of St. James’s Hospital to offer all suitable nursing graduates a permanent contract with the hospital. This is with a view to developing the personal and professional needs of the nurse in a clinical setting, while providing the highest standards of patient care. This includes development in specialist areas.”

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