Mothers working for the NHS say they are being forced to quit their jobs as they grapple with the escalating costs of childcare and the inflexibility of nursery provision around their shifts.
Women have spoken to i about the desperation many parents in the NHS face as they try to juggle their careers around childcare and some say they have no choice but to leave their job because it does not make financial sense to keep working.
Campaigners say the extortionate costs of childcare together with the lack of availability of provision which fits around work is pushing people – particularly women – out of their jobs at a time when the NHS is experiencing a record level of vacancies.
They say some healthcare students are even dropping out of courses as they are struggling to afford childcare and are subsequently giving up their NHS careers before they have even started.
Katy Martin, gave up nursing because her entire take home pay of around £27,000 a year would have been swallowed up by childcare and its associated costs. She told i it seems farcical that the Government keeps talking about staff shortages and trying to get more people into nursing when they are failing to adequately support a young female workforce during their childbearing years.
“It is incredibly frustrating as we hear all the time about there being nursing shortages, but one of the major factors is that nursing has a predominantly young, female workforce and the Government, the NHS and the childcare system is not being accommodating to them having families.
“I have so many friends who have left nursing like me and are now either staying at home with their children, have gone into a completely different job, or have moved to a different country like Australia where they will be better supported and better paid.”
Katy, 38, who is married to Stephen and lives in Kent with their two children Griff, five, and Vaila, one. She says she gave up nursing as all her earnings were going on childcare – and one of the major issues was fitting childcare around her working hours.
“Part of the problem with nursing is there are such antisocial hours and in the most part, you aren’t guaranteed set days,” she explains.
“So you have to pay childcare for five days a week, but only work three of them. And in my hospital, those three days were long hours from 7.30am to 7.30pm – and there’s no nurseries which cover those hours.
“This means unless you have family living nearby to help – which we don’t – you end up paying for wraparound care at both ends too.”
Katy, who worked as an oncology nurse in the NHS for about eight years, even left the health service and went to work at a private hospital, while still doing some hospice work part-funded by the NHS – but even this wasn’t worth her while working from a financial point of view and was logistically difficult.
“I found a nursery with a 7.30am drop off and I could start at the hospice at 7.45am so we tried that for a while, but I wasn’t finishing on time so my husband was having to rush back and we just couldn’t make the juggle work.
“By the time we factored in travelling to work and grabbing a sandwich, we realised I wasn’t actually making any money. So we decided I would just step back altogether and be a stay-at-home mum.”
Katy, whose husband works in finance and is a fairly high earner, says they are lucky that her giving up work hasn’t plunged them into dire straits like it would many families. But she feels disappointed that it felt as if she didn’t really have a choice but to quit.
“The finances just didn’t work,” she says. “Mostly because you end up paying for days you’re not even necessarily working and because of the wraparound care issue. Historically, many hospitals had nurseries, but they have closed.”
In a further blow, Katy was able to keep her nursing registration active until a few months ago by doing agency shifts when she could, but her registration lapsed as she wasn’t able to do the necessary hours. So now, the only way she can return to nursing is by doing a back to practice course.
“I went into nursing because I wanted to make a difference and help people,” she says. “I feel frustrated that it wasn’t my choice to leave in the end, but because I felt forced out of it.”
Michelle, whose name we have changed to protect her identity, tells i she works for the NHS, but is seriously contemplating leaving due to childcare pressures.
“A massive issue is the fact that kids get 14 weeks holiday a year, but term-time work is almost non-existent,” she says. “I work for the NHS and we are struggling to work things around childcare and holidays and it is stressing us out.
“I already work less so we have less childcare to find out of term time – but that means we take a financial hit.
“I’ve contemplated leaving my job because we have 14 weeks a year with no childcare. I’ll have to take some unpaid leave and likely a less paid job eventually to be able to do it.”
Holly Guest, who lives in South Yorkshire and works as an audit manager for the NHS, loves her job and desperately doesn’t want to leave, but the pressures of childcare mean she and her husband, who works for the military, are considering drastic action such as selling their home and downsizing if their nursery doesn’t end up offering the new 15-hour free childcare scheme.
The couple, who have a two-year-old son Arthur, both earn good salaries but with the combination of expensive childcare costs and mortgage rates rising, are drowning financially.
“My husband has a second job and I have condensed my five day week into four days to save us a day of nursery, but it is still a struggle,” she says. “My husband is also away from home for weeks at a time so I am often solo parenting and working and trying to study for a PhD in public health.
“I am very lucky that the NHS has been super supportive and flexible with my role. The issue for us is the cost of childcare. Despite the fact that between us we earn a good wage, all we do at the moment is live to work so we can pay the bills.”
Holly, 31, says the nursery Arthur attends is “incredible” and she has nothing against the nursery for what they charge, but she knows they are affected by funding from the Government. Arthur will be eligible for the new 15-hours free childcare from September, but they don’t currently know if their nursery will offer the scheme.
“Unless we get that help, we will have to do something drastic such as selling our house and downsizing, or moving to live on military base so we can both keep our jobs.
“I have worked hard in my career and really love my job so giving that up is not an option, so something else would have to change.
“When you look at how much salary you take home and how much goes on childcare, depending on your pay band in the NHS, for a lot of people, it’s probably not worth going to work so I completely understand why many women leave.
“I don’t work shifts, but those that do must find it really hard due to the inflexible nature of childcare.
“It is really sad that the NHS is losing good and valuable people who feel forced to leave because of childcare.
“It is also dangerous as it is setting working women back as we are hitting times where women feel they have no choice but to leave work to look after their children.”
Dr Nichola Ashby, Royal College of Nursing deputy chief nurse, said: “The cost of accessing childcare and challenging shift patterns mean some are making the difficult decision to leave the profession while those looking to join are forced out before their careers even begin.
“We hear of those dropping out because they struggle to afford and access childcare while they’re training. The Government must urgently increase childcare allowance grants, currently they don’t come close to covering the cost.
“Nursing students are the future of our health and care services, but the future looks bleak with fewer people expected to take up nursing courses this year. Ultimately, it’s patients who will suffer.”
Helga Pile, Unison acting head of health, said: “Vacancies in the NHS are already at record levels. Now childcare fees and availability are pushing many more from their jobs.
“Nursery costs have risen four times faster than wages in recent years, causing many public service workers to take on second jobs. Some women are leaving the labour market entirely because work doesn’t pay on low wages or shift work.
“Healthcare students are dropping out of courses because childcare is too expensive, depriving the NHS of much-needed new recruits.
“Better pay will help, but employers must offer more flexible working and more affordable childcare if this growing problem is to be tackled.”
Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said:, “The cost of childcare forces many women to make heartbreaking decisions between much wanted careers and being able to afford a family.
“Childcare is essential infrastructure and yet we have one of the most expensive childcare sectors in the world, for three-quarters of women it doesn’t make financial sense to work when you factor in ever spiralling childcare costs.
“If politicians don’t take decisive action now to address underfunding of the childcare sector then we will all pay the price in decades to come.
“When we invest in childcare, we invest in women and the economy. Until we have affordable, high quality childcare, we will continue to see more and more women forced out of the workplace because they can’t afford to keep paying for the privilege of going to work.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This Government is rolling out the largest ever expansion of childcare in England, set to save working parents using 30 hours a week an average of £6,500 per year.
“Students who are parents already receive a grant paying 85 per cent of childcare costs across the full year including holidays, up to a weekly limit, and student nurses with children receive an additional NHS grant of £7,000 per academic year.”