Edinburgh's ambulance call centre in crisis as sickness rate doubles

STRESSED-OUT staff in the Capital's ambulance call centre are taking an average of three weeks off a year on sick leave, the Evening News can reveal.

Figures obtained by the Evening News show the number of sick days taken in 2017/18 more than doubled from 972 in 2014/15 to 2,213 last year – an average of 21 days for each of the 105 call handlers employed there - while one call handler took 172 days off.

Union reps are blaming “momentous” amounts of pressure at the Scottish Ambulance Service’s Gyle headquarters, while bosses claim help is available to staff.

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“The number of staff, the amount of breaks they have and the support they get. We’re concerned about,” said Unison regional organiser, David O’Connor.

A call handler

The revelation comes as emergency services contend with “Black Friday” today – as festive revellers contribute to one of their busiest days of the year.

Union reps for Unison are so worried about stress levels among ambulance staff, including call centre workers, they are holding training sessions.

Anti-stress courses launched as a pilot last month cover how to spot the signs and how to deal with it.

Mr O’Connor said the number of staff suffering post-traumatic stress disorder across the service.


“It’s the same level of pressure for call centre staff as for paramedics and technicians,” he added.

“There’s no getting away from it, staff are dealing with harrowing calls – talking people through until the ambulance arrives.

“Generally we’re concerned right across the board. The pressure call handlers are under to ensure things are dealt with is momentous – there’s a huge amount of pressure.

“There are some difficulties in terms of resources they have. There are not enough staff and not enough appropriate medical advisors to tell them what level calls should be set at.”

Figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws also showed hours taken off sick by call handlers more than doubled – from 10,935 in 2014/15 to 24,899 in 2017/18.

Call handlers took an average 21 days off sick each in 2017/18, compared to 12 days in 2014/15.

A former Scottish Ambulance Service member of staff told the Evening News: “Control room stress levels have always been exceptionally high and it’s not particularly well managed.”

Call handlers are constantly assessed and only get the legal minimum 45-minute break in a gruelling 12-hour shift, said the ex-worker.

“They take call after call after call,” he added. “Staff I know are off sick because they’re burnt out or done in.

“They’re the lowest paid staff within the emergency side of the service and it’s very, very poor for what they have to put up with.

“Morale is so low. If they make a mistake, through stress or whatever, then management will come down on them.”

The numbers of calls dealt with was up 18 per cent in the same period – from 819,080 to 963,918.

Though the number of hours worked was also up more than a quarter (28 per cent) in the four years to the equivalent of 106 staff.

Lothian MSP and Tory health spokesman Miles Briggs said there was a staffing issue about recruitment for the ambulance service.

He said: “I also have concerns around centralisation and the ability to manage an increasing number of calls.

“I know from e-mails I receive there is growing pressure on the ambulance service which is leading to burn-out for staff. It is important we consider how we look after those who look after us. An increasing number of people in the NHS are expected to do more.

“At the heart of any organisation is its people and the NHS is no different, yet we have a situation where many parts of the NHS are critically understaffed.”

Edinburgh Southern Labour MSP Daniel Johnson said: “Reports of ambulance staff suffering from stress and requiring time off are of deep concern, especially at this time of year when we rely on the emergency services to such a great extent.

“All our emergency services – from police to fire to ambulance – are over-stretched and the effect on the frontline is becoming ever clearer. It is an increasing mark of shame on the SNP government.”

A Scottish Ambulance Service spokesman said: “Our managers work closely with staff to prevent stress and promote wellbeing.

“We encourage all our staff to report any concerns they may have regarding their own welfare.

“We also provide an Employee Assistance Programme which offers guidance, professional counselling and various support services delivered by a team of trained welfare practitioners. The Service also works closely with The Ambulance Staff Charity TASC who offer support to staff both past and present.”