NHS physiotherapists have said that high workloads and severe shortages are causing staff to break down in tears on the wards as thousands go on strike.
It is the first time members of the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy (CSP) have taken industrial action.
Up to 4,200 members of the CSP from 30 trusts and foundation trusts around the country are on strike from 12.01am until 23.59pm on Thursday over pay and staff retention.
As with other striking health staff, physios will continue to provide care in the most urgent cases.
This includes supporting people in critical care, those with severe respiratory problems and some stroke patients who require urgent physiotherapy.
But rehab work and discharge planning and community physio is expected to be disrupted.
Greg Stretton, 41, works as a team leader for the respiratory medicine physiotherapist service at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust (NUH).
His team should have 18 staff but usually has around 14, and it has at times dropped to as low as six - despite workloads remaining high as physiotherapy services deal with the aftermath of Covid and a backlog of cancer patients.
Mr Stretton said: “People are just genuinely burnt out, and my team has noticed the impact of that.
“We were having people in our office cry on a daily basis, just from being at work and the stresses of being work amid untenable pressures, patient demands and service demands.
“It almost felt like a choice of who you let down, as team leader it was a choice of do you let down the patients by saying we need to focus on ourselves, or do we let down staff by saying our patients need us?
"We just don’t have the capacity to do everything.”
Jim Fahie, assistant director of employment relations at the CSP, said: “Our members didn’t want to have to strike today, but they simply can’t afford to accept the current pay offer as it stands.
“Right now, physiotherapy staff in the NHS are overstretched, underpaid and unable to provide the full level of care that patients urgently need.
“If the government doesn’t come back with a fair pay offer, then the NHS risks losing more and more valuable members of staff – and that will only make the current crisis in the NHS worse.”
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Hayley Kidger, a 36-year-old senior oncology physio who has worked at the NUH since 2008, said she has never seen the NHS in the state it is now.
Ms Kidger said that while concerns over pay have not severely affected her, they have hit junior colleagues with many having to use foodbanks.
She added that she has “cried her tears" and "I am just angry now”.
In one week, nine of Ms Kidger’s 18-person team cried at work due to stress, inspiring her to write an open letter to the trust’s board last November outlining the pressures that physiotherapist teams are under.
“NHS trusts should not have to have foodbanks, it’s ridiculous, they shouldn’t have to support their staff that way," she said. “It shouldn’t be normal for our office door to be covered in posters about how to leave work well, how to get through a winter with poor mental health, how to stay positive when everything around you feels impossible.
"That shouldn’t be the norm but it is the norm.
“Why would you come here, and put your heart and soul on the line to save someone’s life and hold their hand when they’re dying, when you can get paid more to run a Tesco?”
While the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists are striking until 23.59pm on Thursday, the NUH has said patients with scheduled appointments should still attend, unless told otherwise.
An NUH spokesperson said: “Our focus is to maintain patient safety and our teams are working hard to ensure that we prioritise those patients needing emergency treatment.
“If you have an outpatient appointment you should attend as planned – unless we have contacted you to reschedule. Any appointments that need to be rescheduled will be done as a priority.”
People being treated in hospital will be told of any impact on their care by NUH staff on the wards.
Emergency care will be available, and the public is advised to still attend hospital if they are seriously ill or have life-threatening injuries.
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