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Paramedic sickness rate must be tackled

Editor's Viewpoint

Workers in the Ambulance Service, especially the front line staff who attend emergency call-outs, are engaged in one of the most demanding jobs imaginable. Every day when they come to work they know they will be dealing with life-and-death issues.

Most of the time they are helping members of the public who are themselves stressed because of a relative or friend's illness or injury.

It creates a working atmosphere where, no matter how professional they are, staff inevitably become strained emotionally and physically. Yet they show admirable composure in even the most trying circumstances.

Shockingly, they frequently face abuse and even threats to their lives when called out. There have been numerous reports of thugs threatening ambulance crews and throwing missiles at them.

So it is little wonder that many workers end up taking time off because of stress, anxiety and depression.

However, statistics obtained by this newspaper show an alarming rise in the number of days lost to the service through these problems, from 2,462 in 2011/12 to 6,845 in 2015/16. What is not evident is why the increase has been so large and relatively swift. Is it, as some suggest, that ambulance staff are suffering increasing rates of burnout in a signal of a service under relentless pressure and showing no signs of that pressure easing?

Surely this effect on staff should set alarm bells ringing, not only within the service itself, but also with its Stormont paymasters.

Is the number of staff sufficient to cope with the workload? This is an emergency service, the first responder to sudden, serious illness or accidents, or injuries caused through violence. It is a service that must have the resources to meet the demands placed upon it. It is also a service that must take care of the welfare of its staff.

It is encouraging to note that some procedures have been put in place to meet the most common causes of absences - injuries, fractures and back problems.

Emotional problems are also being addressed, with counselling services available.

These are all positive moves, yet none can disguise that there must exist serious problems within the service, with 32,000 days lost last year at a cost of £4m. A systematic investigation is required to identify and rectify the core problems.

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