NHS England ambulance trusts are battling high staff turnover as key workers leave the crisis-hit service for less stressful or better paid work, according to figures obtained by observer.
Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act reveals the background to recent ambulance strikes, with disease rates exceeding pre-pandemic levels and low levels of staff retention. Ambulance services in the south of England are particularly suffering. Staff turnover rates at South Central Ambulance Service (SCAS) have risen by 20% – meaning one in five staff members leave over the course of a year.
The turnover rate for advanced paramedics is 20%, rising to over 40% for dispatchers, 55% for assistants, and 80% for emergency recipients and NHS 111 healthcare advisors. Sick absence rates are also higher than they were before the pandemic.
South West Ambulance Service (SWAS) has among the longest emergency response times in England. Hospital delivery delays mean that a third of the 999 calls to the Trust are repeat calls from patients or carers asking when an ambulance will arrive.
Through 2024, monthly sick absence rates in SWAS regularly rose to more than 10% in some employee roles – and were often in excess of 20% among employees in the clinical support office. Staff turnover over 12 months was as high as 30% for clinical support desk staff and more than 50% among EMS dispatchers – both compressed roles.
High turnover makes it difficult to increase staff levels, which softens the impact of recruitment campaigns. A SWAS spokesperson said the trust was seeing improved retention rates among Emergency Operations Center (EOC) staff, who receive 999 calls: “This focus and effort is particularly important within EOC due to the ongoing and intense pressure that has been placed on the service since the start of the pandemic, which has inevitably affected on disease rates and our turnover.”
Ambulance workers have been on strike to protest wages in recent months, and GMB union members are among those currently voting on a pay offer. Rachel Harrison, national secretary at the GMB, said: “Ambulance workers do a very important job, but it is not surprising that the pressure they face has increased since the pandemic.
“Even in the best of times, this is a physically and mentally demanding job. After 13 years of Tory mismanagement, the NHS is on the brink of collapse. Workforce numbers have not kept up with sharply increasing demand. Fewer staff are forced to cover more – all That’s because delays and backlogs in the system make their jobs more difficult.
“Absenteeism caused by understaffing and overwork is already contributing to potential delays in attending to incidents. It is time for paramedics and other ambulance workers to get the support they deserve.”
The impact of high staff turnover is seen in the Ambulance Service of the Southeast Coast. trust Board papers She points out that the high turnover rate is part of the reason it failed to recruit enough staff at its 999 frontline locations. It also contributes to the poor performance of the NHS 111 service. The 12-month turnover rate in EOC jobs was 40% in December. A spokesperson for the service said the service is committed to increasing levels of recruitment and retention.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We know that if we are to build a stronger NHS it is essential that we have the workforce to support it – and their health and well-being are of the utmost importance.
“The NHS provides mental health support for staff, including targeted psychological support, treatment and the Nationwide Service for those with more complex mental health needs.
“To relieve pressure on healthcare staff, the NHS will soon publish a long-term workforce plan to support and develop the workforce.”