Delivering Medical Care: Part 2
Archivist Helen is back with her second part of the blog that looks at nurses employed by the Post Office.
Last time I looked at nurses being released from postal duties to nursing in military hospitals. Today I turn my attention to the role of nurses employed within the Post Office.
The first files documenting the employment of nurses by the Post Office date from the 1960s, although these indicate that this was a long-standing practice originating in the Savings Department.
…‘the provision of nurses is a ticklish little matter on which we are far from having any considered Post Office policy’ (Newton, 25 November 1963, POST 122/8837)
At this time there was dual pressure on the Post Office to expand its occupational health services and to increase the range of work undertaken by nurses. This resulted in the Post Office carrying out a detailed survey of all departments employing nurses. The survey covered issues such as whether the nurses were fully employed, whether there was any tension between the nurses and first aiders if having a nurse on site reduced staff absence, and if the Post Office was attracting nurses away from other employers such as hospitals. The responses to this survey provide an insight into how nursing was regarding in the Post Office.
Tension with first aiders were not felt to be an issue. A nurse was paid less than some other staff who might be administering first aid and it was therefore seen as more cost effective to have medical attention provided by a nurse than a first aider who would be neglecting their other duties. Equally many first aiders were paid a piece rate and therefore wanted to get back to their primary duties as soon as possible.
The responses generally show that the nurses were not fully occupied with nursing duties, and this was one cause of discontent among the nurses themselves. It was felt that between 1,000-4,000 staff would be required per nurse to allow them to be fully employed.
The Post Office was also concerned that its employment of nurses might cause issues for other sectors. However, the responses to the survey suggested that those who sought nursing employment in the Post Office were unlikely to seek employment in hospital settings:
‘Without exception, the nurses we have employed are attracted to industry because of the regular hours of work and a five day week. Some have stated that they want to get away from what they claim to be the rather strict supervision of their private life which is exercised in hospital and some other nursing services’ (Factories Department response POST 122/8837)
In 1965 it was agreed to increase the number of Doctors employed in the Post Office branch of the Treasury Medical Services by six. There were also proposals to establish experimental sick bays staffed by nurses in large operation buildings.
The nursing staff were not exempt from the industrial relations issues that beset the Post Office in the 1970s. The primary issue facing them was determining which union best represented their interests. There was a widespread desire among the nurses to be represented by the Royal College of Nursing, which was not acceptable to the Post Office. They were initially represented by the Institute of Professional Civil Servants (IPCS) but left in 1973 leaving them without union representation until 1975 when they joined the Society of Civil Servants (SCS).
In 1985 the nurses applied for a 14.5% pay rise which was in line the pay award granted to NHS nurses. This was rejected by the Post Office leading to claims of discrimination:
‘the feeling grows that there is real discrimination taking place here, not unconnected with the fact that SNOs are all female’ (POST 60/280)
This sense of discrimination is not substantiated by the figures which show that in the period 1974-1985 Post Office nurses saw an overall increase in pay of 214.6% compared to an increase in the NHS of 177.5%. The request for a 14.5% increase seems particularly high today when pay rises for nurses are set at 6.5% over three years.
While nursing was clearly never the primary concern of the Post Office the provision of qualified nurses was seen as valuable in terms of increased efficiency and decreased absence. Researching the history of nursing in the Post Office has highlighted the diversity of the records held including those covering unexpected subjects.
– Helen Dafter, Archivist