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Staffing levels

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How are staffing levels and low pay affecting you right now? How is the cost-of-living crisis and the remnants of a global pandemic impacting your work and life? Capture your lived experience with our easy-to-use tool and help tell the true story of UK nursing.


These are unprecedented times. Staffing levels are poor in many places, on most shifts and patient care is being compromised as a result of unsustainable pressures

This advice guide covers your employer's responsibilities and what you can do if you have concerns.


Your employer has a legal duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all their staff when they are at work, so far as is reasonably practicable. The relevant pieces of legislation are:

  • the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974
  • the Health and Safety at Work (Northern Ireland) Order 1978

Your employer also has a duty to protect the health and safety of other people (not employed by the organisation) such as:

  • patients
  • visitors
  • members of the public who may be affected by the work being undertaken.

As a registered nurse, midwife, health visitor or nursing associate, you have safety responsibilities under the NMC code. However, your employer is ultimately responsible for taking all reasonable steps to ensure safe systems of work are in place and the working environment is safe for staff, patients, their families and the public.

Although health care support workers (HCSWs) and assistant practitioners (APs) are not regulated by the NMC or any other professional body, the NMC code is useful when considering best practice.

Where there are staffing pressures, your employer should consider:

  • authorising the use of agency staff where possible
  • reducing demand by cancelling elective surgery
  • run proactive and aggressive recruitment campaigns for permanent and temporary staff
  • redeploying staff
  • seek support from other agencies (including the military and other emergency services if available).

Your employer should be risk assessing other work-related health and safety issues (often made worse by current demands) and put in place measures to reduce risk. This should include the risks to staff and patients from:

  • work related stress
  • fatigue and tiredness
  • mental distress
  • violence and aggression. 

Under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, your employer has a duty to provide ready access to drinking water, somewhere to rest and eat meals and facilities to change out of your uniform. In addition, your employer should also ensure there are suitable and sufficient washing facilities, including showers if required by the nature of the work or for health reasons.

Here are some practical examples of what your employer could do:

  • provide easily accessible nutritious hot meals and snacks/drinks
  • provide  easily accessible rest areas (such as wobble rooms) around the clock so staff can have some downtime to rest and recuperate
  • use existing in-house psychology and mental health teams to provide support outreach help to staff and bereaved relatives close to the ward areas
  • implement effective rostering of breaks and maintain focus on peer and manager support to help ensure all staff take their breaks
  • organise taxis home for staff who are too exhausted to drive home safely
  • ensuring that shower and locker facilities are readily accessible 
  • consider placing a suggestion box outside the unit or in changing areas to encourage staff to share their ideas on what can be done to ease the pressure.

During these challenging times, you may be finding it difficult to maintain your mental health and wellbeing when coping with so much uncertainty and turmoil at work. We recognise how extremely difficult it is for you. It is normal to feel distress, sad and/or anxious in such times.

Don’t hesitate to reach out for help and access resources such as helplines, chat rooms or other sources of mental health support. Talk to your colleagues; if you think there is more your employer could be doing to make things easier, then raise it with them. We know that the best ideas come from the staff doing the work.

If you need further emotional support, you can access the RCN Counselling service.

You may also find these resources helpful:

NHS Pathways
Health, safety and wellbeing
OpenLearn: Understanding depression and anxiety
e-Learning for Healthcare: Introduction to Mindfulness
Scotland - Turas Learn: Psychosocial mental health and wellbeing support for staff.

Under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the Health and Safety at Work Order (Northern Ireland) 1978, as an employee you have a duty to take reasonable care of your own health and safety and to co-operate with your employer on health and safety matters. In practice, this means following policies and procedures and reporting any safety concerns.

Please see our guidance on redeployment.

You should follow your organisation's incident reporting procedures (for example, complete a Datix or incident form).  

The RCN has developed two letters to support you to document and report concerns. If you are a nurse, use our model letter for nurses. If you are a nursing support worker, use our nursing support worker model letter. It can be frightening to do this on your own, so try and get as many colleagues as possible to sign the letter. Give the letter to your manager at the end of your shift and keep a copy yourself.

You should also document patient safety issues or missed care in the patient notes. For example, if you should have been doing observations on a patient every two hours but only managed to do them every four hours, document this and the reasons why.

We understand that this may not improve this situation in terms of safe staffing and that much of this is outside your employer’s control, but our letter will help you document concerns in a quick and easy way. 

If the matter remains unresolved, please see our raising concerns section.

What types of incidents should I report?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) describes an incident as a:

  • near miss - an event not causing harm, but has the potential to cause injury or ill health (in the HSE guidance, the term ‘near miss’ will include dangerous occurrences)
  • undesired circumstance - a set of conditions or circumstances that have the potential to cause injury or ill health, for example, lack of appropriately trained nursing staff to safely move and handle patients.    

What about reporting psychological harm?

The RCN encourages members to report any work-related harm to their psychological health including work related stress.

If you don’t feel able to complete our letter or if you are worried about confidentially, log your concerns in writing with your occupational health provider who can support you to make your manager aware of the problem.

If you need support, contact us and see our mental health section.

What if the staffing situation does not improve?

If the situation does not improve despite submitting our letter, your next step is to formally raise concerns.

Organisations must have effective procedures in place to allow nursing staff and their representatives to raise any concerns in relation to staffing, equipment, policies and processes for managing unsustainable work pressures at the earliest opportunity.

Nursing staff should feel able to raise concerns without detriment and should receive timely feedback on their concerns.

Please see:

If you have followed these steps and the issue is still not resolved, please contact us.

Can I refuse to treat patients because the staffing levels are not sufficient?

Please see our refusal to treat guide and speak to your manager about your concerns in the first instance. 

If the matter is not resolved, contact us for further advice.

There is no simple tool or method that will enable you to assess this easily. The RCN Nursing Workforce Standards maybe able to help you consider the situation in your own workplace. In addition, our library subject guide contains a number of additional resources and background information. 

The RCN continues to campaign for staffing for safe and effective care across the four UK countries. Find out more on our campaign pages, or choose a country-specific option below:


Northern Ireland

Scotland - including our summary of information about the Health and Care (Staffing) (Scotland) Act 2019 in force from 1 April 2024.

Wales - including information about the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016.

See our advice guide for student nurses.

What is the role of RCN safety representatives?

RCN safety representatives should be kept informed of measures being taken to protect staff and there should be mechanisms in place that allow safety representatives to raise concerns with senior managers, health and safety, or infection control leads on behalf of staff.

Members who are concerned should speak to their local RCN safety representative and/or contact us.

COVID-19 Risk Assessment toolkit

Take a look at the new RCN Risk Assessment toolkit which supports RCN members and wider health care professionals manage the risks of COVID-19 in the workplace.

Our guidance on PPE

Read this alongside your local infection prevention and control policy.

Unsustainable pressures

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified existing pressures on staffing and resources in all health and care settings.

This resource has been designed to support members in delivering safe and effective care and with the difficult decisions they make every day.

Page last updated - 12/06/2024