The RCN is calling for urgent measures to reduce the enormous strain nursing and midwifery staff face every day of their working lives.
The comments were made in response to a new report, The Courage of Compassion, produced and issued by the King’s Fund for the RCN Foundation.
The report says that new minimum standards to improve working conditions and a review of 12-hour shifts are needed to address exhaustion and burnout among nurses and midwives.
The Courage of Compassion also highlights that staff stress, absenteeism and turnover in the professions have reached alarmingly high levels, and this has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Susan Masters, RCN Director of Nursing, Policy and Public Affairs, said: "Safe staffing and appropriate pay are key priorities related to wellbeing that we are campaigning on. Today, there are approximately 50,000 registered nurse vacancies in the NHS in the UK, impacting patient safety, and morale and wellbeing in the profession at a time when these are crucial.
"At present, really ambitious and well-qualified young people are really struggling with gruelling shifts, staff shortages and poor pay. They feel they have no choice but to leave a career they should love – at a huge cost to patient care. Politicians and officials need to grasp the nettle before we lose even more.”
The report sets out eight key recommendations to support the wellbeing of nurses and midwives across the UK, including those working in adult social care, GP practices, community care and other settings.
Among the recommendations is an urgent call for a review of how 12-hour shifts affect staff mental health and wellbeing and patient safety. Although some staff prefer them as they allow for more flexible working patterns, evidence shows that 12-hour shifts are associated with poor sleep and wellbeing among staff and lower quality of care for patients.
Susan added: "While we understand that some of our members prefer 12-hour shifts, such as those with caring responsibilities or long commutes, we also recognise the challenges these shifts can bring. We would welcome a full review of them, and their impact on nursing staff and patient care.
"Where 12-hour shifts are used, employers should offer appropriate support with respect to staff health and wellbeing, including adequate rest breaks, careful rostering and internal rotations."
Other recommendations in the report include suggestions to improve working conditions, shift patterns, workplace culture, team-working, support for new staff, supervision and learning opportunities.