Nurses perks no cure for low pay

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ACTING ward sister Karen Roberts was glad to be offered stress- management courses and reflexology at her workplace. However, she fears that perks such as these will not be enough to stem the flood of nurses leaving the National Health Service, often over low pay.

Mrs Roberts works at Poole Hospital in Dorset, which is run by one of a number of health trusts where managers are using generous benefits to try to persuade nurses to stay.

Perks offered by trusts around the country include alternative therapy, counselling and child care. At Poole Hospital, there are even retreat days organised by the hospital chaplaincy.

"The first time some student nurses work in a hospital they are shocked by the pressure," said Mrs Roberts. "There are a series of factors affecting nurses, not just poor pay. The benefits introduced here help appease people, but they are dealing with the symptoms of the problem, not the cause."

Ruth Cusson, a patient care development manager, said: "We can never compensate for low salaries, but we hope to make them less painful."

In Dyfed, the Llanelli Dinefwr NHS trust has an on-site nursery which gives priority to the children of staff. Older children are taken to and from school and looked after until their parents come home from work. Places on a holiday play scheme are also subsidised.

Chris Jones, chief executive of the trust, said: "We do have recruitment problems at D and E grade and this kind of thing encourages people back."

A spokeswoman for the Royal College of Nursing said: "We really are hitting crisis point. Nurses are reaching the end of their tether. These things trusts are doing are great, but they are addressing the symptoms, not the root cause."

She added that the college is urging the Government to improve pay for nurses and change the grading system. Nationwide, there is a shortage of 8,000 nurses, and 85 per cent of trusts have problems recruiting. Half of those in the profession are D and E grades; a new D-grade nurse earns a maximum of pounds 12,600 while a top E-grade nurse makes pounds 16,750.

A spokeswoman for the NHS Confederation, which represents health trusts, said many were now offering extra benefits. She explained there were shortages of nurses in particular specialisms in some regions, and the confederation is carrying out its own research into the problem later in the year.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it recognised the problem of recruitment and had spent pounds 1.5m on a campaign to recruit and retain more nurses in the past two years.