Tag Archives: could

Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you

Long hours, stress and physical inactivity are bad for our wellbeing – yet we’re working harder than ever. Isn’t it time we fought back?

Health at work illo 1


Illustration: Leon Edler

When a new group of interns recently arrived at Barclays in New York, they discovered a memo in their inboxes. It was from their supervisor at the bank, and headed: “Welcome to the jungle.” The message continued: “I recommend bringing a pillow to the office. It makes sleeping under your desk a lot more comfortable … The internship really is a nine-week commitment at the desk … An intern asked our staffer for a weekend off for a family reunion – he was told he could go. He was also asked to hand in his BlackBerry and pack up his desk.”

Although the (unauthorised) memo was meant as a joke, no one laughed when it was leaked to the media. Memories were still fresh of Moritz Erhardt, the 21-year-old London intern who died after working 72 hours in a row at Bank of America. It looked as if Barclays was also taking the “work ethic” to morbid extremes.

Following 30 years of neoliberal deregulation, the nine-to-five feels like a relic of a bygone era. Jobs are endlessly stressed and increasingly precarious. Overwork has become the norm in many companies – something expected and even admired. Everything we do outside the office – no matter how rewarding – is quietly denigrated. Relaxation, hobbies, raising children or reading a book are dismissed as laziness. That’s how powerful the mythology of work is.

Technology was supposed to liberate us from much of the daily slog, but has often made things worse: in 2002, fewer than 10% of employees checked their work email outside of office hours. Today, with the help of tablets and smartphones, it is 50%, often before we get out of bed.

Health at work illo 2


Illustration: Leon Edler

Some observers have suggested that workers today are never “turned off”. Like our mobile phones, we only go on standby at the end of the day, as we crawl into bed exhausted. This unrelenting joylessness is especially evident where holidays are concerned. In the US, one of the richest economies in the world, employees are lucky to get two weeks off a year.

You might almost think this frenetic activity was directly linked to our biological preservation and that we would all starve without it. As if writing stupid emails all day in a cramped office was akin to hunting-and-gathering of a previous age … Thankfully, a sea change is taking place. The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center recently used activity trackers to monitor 8,000 workers over the age of 45. The findings were striking. The average period of inactivity during each waking day was 12.3 hours. Employees who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for 11.5 hours. The authors concluded that sitting in an office for long periods has a similar effect to smoking and ought to come with a health warning.

When researchers at University College London looked at 85,000 workers, mainly middle-aged men and women, they found a correlation between overwork and cardiovascular problems, especially an irregular heart beat or atrial fibrillation, which increases the chances of a stroke five-fold.

Labour unions are increasingly raising concerns about excessive work, too, especially its impact on relationships and physical and mental health. Take the case of the IG Metall union in Germany. Last week, 15,000 workers (who manufacture car parts for firms such as Porsche) called a strike, demanding a 28-hour work week with unchanged pay and conditions. It’s not about indolence, they say, but self-protection: they don’t want to die before their time. Science is on their side: research from the Australian National University recently found that working anything over 39 hours a week is a risk to wellbeing.

Is there a healthy and acceptable level of work? According to US researcher Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, most modern employees are productive for about four hours a day: the rest is padding and huge amounts of worry. Pang argues that the workday could easily be scaled back without undermining standards of living or prosperity.

Health at work illo 3


Illustration: Leon Edler

Other studies back up this observation. The Swedish government, for example, funded an experiment where retirement home nurses worked six-hour days and still received an eight-hour salary. The result? Less sick leave, less stress, and a jump in productivity.

All this is encouraging as far as it goes. But almost all of these studies focus on the problem from a numerical point of view – the amount of time spent working each day, year-in and year-out. We need to go further and begin to look at the conditions of paid employment. If a job is wretched and overly stressful, even a few hours of it can be an existential nightmare. Someone who relishes working on their car at the weekend, for example, might find the same thing intolerable in a large factory, even for a short period. All the freedom, creativity and craft are sucked out of the activity. It becomes an externally imposed chore rather than a moment of release.

Why is this important?

Because there is a danger that merely reducing working hours will not change much, when it comes to health, if jobs are intrinsically disenfranchising. In order to make jobs more conducive to our mental and physiological welfare, much less work is definitely essential. So too are jobs of a better kind, where hierarchies are less authoritarian and tasks are more varied and meaningful.

Capitalism doesn’t have a great track record for creating jobs such as these, unfortunately. More than a third of British workers think their jobs are meaningless, according to a survey by YouGov. And if morale is that low, it doesn’t matter how many gym vouchers, mindfulness programmes and baskets of organic fruit employers throw at them. Even the most committed employee will feel that something is fundamentally missing. A life.

Peter Fleming’s new book, The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt and the Myth of Endless Accumulation, is published by Pluto Press (£14.99rrp). To order a copy for £12.74 with free UK p&p, go to guardianbookshop.com

Could drinking tea really be linked to a lower risk of glaucoma?

Drinking hot tea could be linked to a lower risk of having an eye condition that can lead to blindness, research has suggested – although experts say the study does not show that the brew offers any protective effect.

Glaucoma is an eye condition in which the pressure of fluids inside the eye damages the optic nerve – and can lead to blindness if left undetected. Many are unaware they have the condition, and while the risk of glaucoma increases with age, it can also affect babies and children. About 57.5 million people are thought to have the condition worldwide.

Now researchers delving into the question of whether caffeine could affect pressure inside the eye say they have found that drinking hot tea appears to be linked to a lower risk of glaucoma.

Writing in the British Journal of Ophthalmology, researchers in the US describe how they analysed data from a 2005-2006 nationwide health and nutrition survey, looking at the results of eye examinations from 1,678 participants aged 40 or over.

They also analysed the participants’ responses to a questionnaire about how often they had drunk coffee, hot tea, soft drinks or iced tea in the past year, and whether those drinks were caffeinated or decaffeinated.

In total, 84 participants were found to have glaucoma, with diabetes more common and smoking less common for those with the condition than the participants taken as a whole.

There was no link between drinking coffee, soft drinks or iced tea and having glaucoma, whether the drinks were decaffeinated or not, nor between glaucoma and decaffeinated hot tea.

But, the team note, there did appear to be a link to hot tea in general, with those consuming more than six cups of the brew a week less likely to have the condition even when factors such as age, body mass index, smoking and diabetes were taken into account.

Overall, the chance of having glaucoma – compared with not having it – was 74% lower among those who drank hot tea in such quantities.

“In summary, individuals who consumed hot tea were less likely to have a diagnosis of glaucoma compared with those who did not consume hot tea,” the authors write.

The team suggests that certain plant chemicals such as flavonoids and other antioxidants found in tea could be offering a protective effect, adding that caffeinated tea might be richer in antioxidants than decaffeinated tea.

But they admit that it is difficult to draw any conclusions since the study only offers a snapshot in time and does not look at whether drinking hot tea actually lowers the risk of glaucoma.

It is also a puzzle why there is no link between iced tea and lower glaucoma risk.

And there are other limitations, including a lack of data on the type of tea drunk, that participants could have drunk multiple types of beverage, possible errors in diagnosis of glaucoma, and the fact that very few participants had glaucoma – and very few of them drank hot tea. What’s more, the survey relied on participants self-reporting what they had drunk, with the authors noting the association could even be a matter of chance.

“Tea drinkers should feel comfortable about drinking tea but should realise that the results are preliminary and drinking tea may not prevent glaucoma,” said Anne Coleman, co-author of the research from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Melanie Hingorani from the Royal College of Ophthalmologists urged caution. “Absolutely nothing is proven or even strongly evidenced – there are all sorts of things wrong with it,” she said of the study. All those over the age of 40 should have an eye-check every one to two years, she said, and more regularly for those at risk, such as those with diabetes or a family history of glaucoma. If detected, Hingorani added, glaucoma can be tackled – although not reversed – with drops or other treatments.

Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, said that while the study was interesting, it did not mean that anyone should starting increasing their hot tea consumption.

“I would not say in any way that this proves that drinking tea prevents glaucoma,” he said, adding that the study did not take into account other habits or socioeconomic factors that could be at play, and that robust clinical trials would be needed to show if tea had any benefits for glaucoma risk.

Instead, Sattar said, individuals should focus on other lifestyle choices – such as having a good quality diet and staying active – to reduce the likelihood of developing conditions known to be linked to an increased risk of glaucoma, such as diabetes.

“Drinking tea without sugar is certainly beneficial because it is a very low calorie drink; whether it has got other magical benefits like preventing glaucoma I think is open to question,” he said.

How an army of volunteers could help win the fight for the NHS | David Brindle

Geoff Mann is about to mark 10 years as a volunteer at North Tyneside general hospital. The retired chartered quantity surveyor does a day a week, sometimes more, driving patients and visitors with mobility needs around the hospital in North Shields in an electric buggy.

“It’s what everybody says – the enormous sense of satisfaction,” says Mann, 77, when asked what he gets out of it. “You meet a lot of people, you help them get around, you put them at ease if they’re worried – and you feel you’re part of one big family.”

For Michael Hume, another driver, volunteering for almost four years now has helped him regain confidence after a serious accident. “I wasn’t good in big groups,” says the 52-year-old former forklift operator. “This has picked me up more than anything.”

North Tyneside is run by Northumbria Healthcare NHS foundation trust, one of five trusts in a pilot programme endorsed and funded by NHS England (NHSE) aiming to make volunteering an integral part of healthcare. Although volunteers have been a feature of the NHS since its inception, their roles have typically been limited to running the hospital shop or pushing a trolley around the wards.

This is different. “Generally there’s a lot of ‘nice’ stuff. But is it high impact? No – it’s at the margins,” says Sir Tom Hughes-Hallett, the philanthropist behind the programme. “I thought we could really shift the dial on this, recast volunteering for the 21st century and help the NHS more effectively tackle the ever-mounting health challenges it faces.”

The plan, which has the backing of NHS leaders and an impressive line-up of charity and corporate supporters, is to use volunteers to ease “pinch points” in the patient’s progress through the healthcare system – from the queue at a hospital reception or delays in discharge caused by lack of transport to making someone available to collect prescriptions from the hospital pharmacy. They could also be part of wards, meeting patient needs that paid staff have no time to address.


Even three years ago, staff at my trust didn’t know what to do with volunteers. But now they are bursting with ideas

Hughes-Hallett has set up a non-profit community interest company, Helpforce, to develop the pilot programme and to coordinate and grow volunteering initiatives across the NHS in England. In all, 12 trusts – including the five in the pilot – have joined an initial network supporting the broader ambition to double the number of volunteers in hospitals from an estimated 78,000 to more than 150,000 by 2021.

“That will give the NHS one volunteer for every 10 staff,” says Hughes-Hallett, who chairs the Chelsea and Westminster hospital foundation trust in west London, another of the pilot sites. “I think that will make a huge difference to the stress and exhaustion of the workforce.”

It is precisely that exhaustion, after seven years of austerity and growing pressure on the NHS to meet the needs of the ageing population, that makes him optimistic about his plan. Health workers, and especially their trade unions, have traditionally been suspicious of volunteers encroaching on professional roles.

But now the prospect of having extra pairs of hands is revealing a very different attitude, he reports. At his own trust, staff are “biting our hands off” to add volunteers to their teams. “Even three years ago they would have said, ‘What are we going do with them?’ Now they are bursting with ideas. It’s totally changed.”

Key to this new attitude is likely to be Helpforce’s guarantee that volunteers will never replace staff – “I have made that absolute commitment to the unions,” says Hughes-Hallett – and its ambition that they will always be safe and reliable. It is working with Health Education England, the health sector training body, on the idea of certified courses for volunteers. The pilot sites, moreover, are required to involve local staff representatives in creating volunteer roles. “Unless this is something that the unions think is going to benefit their members, it isn’t going to work,” Hughes-Hallett declares.

Hughes-Hallett describes the Royal College of Nursing as “very supportive” and has invited it to join the Helpforce advisory council. At public services union Unison, head of health, Sara Gorton, expresses support for the principle of volunteering, but adds: “Unison is keen to work with Helpforce to ensure that the role of volunteers is limited to tasks that don’t compromise patient safety or take paid staff away from their core work.”

Hughes-Hallett, 63, was a successful investment banker who sold his business in 2000 and became chief executive of cancer care charity Marie Curie. It was during his 12 years there that he came to appreciate the value and potential of volunteers. In summer last year, he pitched the Helpforce blueprint to health service leaders including NHS chief executive, Simon Stevens, who endorsed it.

The pilot programme, which also includes Sandwell and West Birmingham hospitals trust, University Hospital Southampton foundation trust and West Suffolk foundation trust, is being funded by £250,000 from NHS England. Hughes-Hallett says he has put in a sum “in the low six figures” and a bid has been made for lottery funding, an undisclosed sum, for the four-strong central team working alongside him.

Among Helpforce’s supporting organisations is the Royal Voluntary Service (RVS), which already provides some 5,000 volunteers for hospitals across Britain. Catherine Johnstone, RVS chief executive, says: “We’ve been there a long time, we have a big footprint – but the complexity of the challenges now facing hospitals means we have to pull together and have more focus. Without a national initiative like this, that’s very difficult.”

Helpforce is also looking to recruit a more diverse volunteer base than groups like RVS have been able to do. Georgia Hutton, 28, has been volunteering as a “meeter and greeter” at North Tyneside for more than five years, but admits she is unusual in having decided to try it after graduating from university without firm career plans.

“I don’t know why more young people don’t do it: I think it’s great,” says Hutton, who is also training to be a counsellor and working part-time as a receptionist. “A lot of the people who come in are elderly, and maybe have no one else at home, so sometimes I just sit and have a little chat with them.”

Hutton chooses to volunteer one afternoon a fortnight. At Chelsea and Westminster, Katie Lillie, 38, helps out on the busy main reception between 10am and 2pm on Wednesdays, which fits in with her children’s school hours. Offering such flexibility will be crucial to attracting younger volunteers and those from more diverse ethnic backgrounds, the Helpforce team recognises, but can you match people’s preferences with those “pinch points” in the system?

Rachael Allsop, Chelsea and Westminster’s director of volunteering, thinks you can. Helping patients eat and drink at lunchtime is critical to their speedy recovery, she points out, while weekends in hospital “can be desperate” if there are no activities. “Bridging the gap between late afternoon and usual visiting time is another great opportunity for younger volunteers, including students looking to have it on their CV,” she says.

Allsop has a target of increasing the number of volunteers at Chelsea and Westminster from 350 to 900 by 2020. That looks daunting, but Hughes-Hallett is convinced the tide is running strongly in Helpforce’s favour. “It’s already been the most extraordinary journey,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more exciting in my life.”

Marriage could help reduce risk of dementia, study suggests

Being married could help stave off dementia, a new study has suggested.

Levels of social interaction could explain the finding, experts have said, after the research showed that people who are single or widowed are more likely to develop the disease.

Experts conducted an analysis of 15 studies which held data on dementia and marital status involving more than 800,000 people from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

Their study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, concluded that lifelong singletons have a 42% elevated risk of dementia compared with married couples.

Those who have been widowed had a 20% increased risk compared with married people, they found, but no elevated risk was found among divorcees compared with those who were still married.

The researchers, led by experts from University College London, said previous research has shown that married people may adopt healthier lifestyles. They may also be more likely to be socially engaged than singletons.

Meanwhile, the effect observed in people who have been widowed could be due to stress that comes with bereavement, they added. Another explanation could be that developing dementia could be related to other underlying cognitive or personality traits.

Commenting on the study, Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link. People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health.

“Spouses may help to encourage healthy habits, look out for their partner’s health and provide important social support. Research suggests that social interaction can help to build cognitive reserve – a mental resilience that allows people to function for longer with a disease like Alzheimer’s before showing symptoms.

“Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and these are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”

Marriage could help reduce risk of dementia, study suggests

Being married could help stave off dementia, a new study has suggested.

Levels of social interaction could explain the finding, experts have said, after the research showed that people who are single or widowed are more likely to develop the disease.

Experts conducted an analysis of 15 studies which held data on dementia and marital status involving more than 800,000 people from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

Their study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, concluded that lifelong singletons have a 42% elevated risk of dementia compared with married couples.

Those who have been widowed had a 20% increased risk compared with married people, they found, but no elevated risk was found among divorcees compared with those who were still married.

The researchers, led by experts from University College London, said previous research has shown that married people may adopt healthier lifestyles. They may also be more likely to be socially engaged than singletons.

Meanwhile, the effect observed in people who have been widowed could be due to stress that comes with bereavement, they added. Another explanation could be that developing dementia could be related to other underlying cognitive or personality traits.

Commenting on the study, Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link. People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health.

“Spouses may help to encourage healthy habits, look out for their partner’s health and provide important social support. Research suggests that social interaction can help to build cognitive reserve – a mental resilience that allows people to function for longer with a disease like Alzheimer’s before showing symptoms.

“Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and these are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”

Marriage could help reduce risk of dementia, study suggests

Being married could help stave off dementia, a new study has suggested.

Levels of social interaction could explain the finding, experts have said, after the research showed that people who are single or widowed are more likely to develop the disease.

Experts conducted an analysis of 15 studies which held data on dementia and marital status involving more than 800,000 people from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

Their study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, concluded that lifelong singletons have a 42% elevated risk of dementia compared with married couples.

Those who have been widowed had a 20% increased risk compared with married people, they found, but no elevated risk was found among divorcees compared with those who were still married.

The researchers, led by experts from University College London, said previous research has shown that married people may adopt healthier lifestyles. They may also be more likely to be socially engaged than singletons.

Meanwhile, the effect observed in people who have been widowed could be due to stress that comes with bereavement, they added. Another explanation could be that developing dementia could be related to other underlying cognitive or personality traits.

Commenting on the study, Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link. People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health.

“Spouses may help to encourage healthy habits, look out for their partner’s health and provide important social support. Research suggests that social interaction can help to build cognitive reserve – a mental resilience that allows people to function for longer with a disease like Alzheimer’s before showing symptoms.

“Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and these are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”

Marriage could help reduce risk of dementia, study suggests

Being married could help stave off dementia, a new study has suggested.

Levels of social interaction could explain the finding, experts have said, after the research showed that people who are single or widowed are more likely to develop the disease.

Experts conducted an analysis of 15 studies which held data on dementia and marital status involving more than 800,000 people from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

Their study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, concluded that lifelong singletons have a 42% elevated risk of dementia compared with married couples.

Those who have been widowed had a 20% increased risk compared with married people, they found, but no elevated risk was found among divorcees compared with those who were still married.

The researchers, led by experts from University College London, said previous research has shown that married people may adopt healthier lifestyles. They may also be more likely to be socially engaged than singletons.

Meanwhile, the effect observed in people who have been widowed could be due to stress that comes with bereavement, they added. Another explanation could be that developing dementia could be related to other underlying cognitive or personality traits.

Commenting on the study, Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link. People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health.

“Spouses may help to encourage healthy habits, look out for their partner’s health and provide important social support. Research suggests that social interaction can help to build cognitive reserve – a mental resilience that allows people to function for longer with a disease like Alzheimer’s before showing symptoms.

“Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and these are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”

Marriage could help reduce risk of dementia, study suggests

Being married could help stave off dementia, a new study has suggested.

Levels of social interaction could explain the finding, experts have said, after the research showed that people who are single or widowed are more likely to develop the disease.

Experts conducted an analysis of 15 studies which held data on dementia and marital status involving more than 800,000 people from Europe, North and South America, and Asia.

Their study, published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, concluded that lifelong singletons have a 42% elevated risk of dementia compared with married couples.

Those who have been widowed had a 20% increased risk compared with married people, they found, but no elevated risk was found among divorcees compared with those who were still married.

The researchers, led by experts from University College London, said previous research has shown that married people may adopt healthier lifestyles. They may also be more likely to be socially engaged than singletons.

Meanwhile, the effect observed in people who have been widowed could be due to stress that comes with bereavement, they added. Another explanation could be that developing dementia could be related to other underlying cognitive or personality traits.

Commenting on the study, Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “There is compelling research showing married people generally live longer and enjoy better health, with many different factors likely to be contributing to that link. People who are married tend to be financially better off, a factor that is closely interwoven with many aspects of our health.

“Spouses may help to encourage healthy habits, look out for their partner’s health and provide important social support. Research suggests that social interaction can help to build cognitive reserve – a mental resilience that allows people to function for longer with a disease like Alzheimer’s before showing symptoms.

“Staying physically, mentally, and socially active are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and these are things everyone, regardless of their marital status, can work towards.”

Four out of five full-term baby deaths in UK could be prevented, says study

About 80% of full-term stillbirths and deaths of babies during childbirth could be prevented if mothers received better care and UK maternity units were better staffed, according to a report by doctors, academics and health charities.

About 180 babies died in 2015 as a result of midwife shortages, mistakes by maternity staff and delivery delays out of a total of 225 full-term stillbirths and deaths during childbirth, according to the study.

The findings by the MBRRACE-UK coalition have prompted concern that some babies are dying because midwives are too busy to provide proper care in maternity units that are often under intense pressure.

The group, led by experts at Oxford and Leicester universities, based their findings on an in-depth analysis of what went wrong with 78 of the 225 deaths in 2015.

Too often maternity staff delay a decision to get a baby out or fail to properly monitor the baby’s heartbeat, they found. One in four such deaths occurs because a maternity unit, especially a delivery suite, is struggling with “staffing and capacity problems”, the research shows.

“The main issues identified were: care before labour was established, including induction; monitoring during labour; delay in expediting birth; heavy workloads of the units; a lack of joint obstetric and neonatal inputs into bereavement care; and a lack of rigour in the local review of the deaths,” said Elizabeth Draper, a professor of perinatal and paediatric epidemiology at Leicester University.

The report found that although improved care has more than halved the number of such deaths since 1993, babies were still dying unnecessarily because of:

  • Delays by staff in inducing one in three babies who were due to be induced. “There was a significant delay in both the decision to expedite the birth and in actually achieving birth in approximately a third of the deaths reviewed,” the report said.
  • A lack “service capacity” in maternity units proved a significant factor in more than a fifth of cases.
  • Staff failing to recognise that the mother-to-be was in transition to the active (second) phase of labour and therefore not starting proper monitoring of the baby’s health. This occurred in one in eight of the 78 cases studied.

“The panel consensus was that in nearly 80% of deaths improvements in care were identified which may have made a difference to the outcome for the baby,” MBBRACE-UK concluded.

Although such deaths are happening less often, the experts said a growing number of babies were being born to women “who have risk factors associated with an increased risk of perinatal death”, including being very overweight. Obesity and the increasing trend towards older motherhood are making childbirth more complex for maternity staff.

“Cases of stillbirth and neonatal death have a devastating emotional impact on parents. The government needs to address, as a matter of urgency, the shortage of midwives and obstetricians, to make sure that women in labour are properly cared for. Too often midwives are overworked and unable to give women the attention they need,” said Maureen Treadwell, a research officer with the Birth Trauma Association, which helps women who develop post-traumatic stress disorder after childbirth.

In a speech on Tuesday on maternity safety, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, will announce plans to ensure that when a baby dies or suffers life-changing injuries at birth in England, there will be an independent investigation into what happened.

The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which Hunt set up this year to improve patient safety across the NHS, will conduct the inquiries. Coroners may also be able to look into full-term stillbirths under Hunt’s plan.

Hunt is expected to say: “The tragic death or life-changing injury of a baby is something no parent should have to bear, but one thing that can help in these agonising circumstances is getting honest answers quickly from an independent investigator. Too many families have been denied this in the past, adding unnecessarily to the pain of their loss.”

Charities welcomed the move. Elizabeth Duff, a senior policy adviser at the parenting charity NCT, said: “It’s shocking and heartbreaking that in nearly 80% of cases, improvements in care may have made a difference to the outcome for the baby. Staffing shortages mean midwives are under enormous pressure which can lead to situations that have a devastating impact on families.”

Dr David Evans, a consultant neonatologist and a vice-president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “Neonatal units have a strict set of service standards in place in order to protect their vulnerable patients but … many units fail to meet these standards due to workforce pressures.”

Four out of five full-term baby deaths in UK could be prevented, says study

About 80% of full-term stillbirths and deaths of babies during childbirth could be prevented if mothers received better care and UK maternity units were better staffed, according to a report by doctors, academics and health charities.

About 180 babies died in 2015 as a result of midwife shortages, mistakes by maternity staff and delivery delays out of a total of 225 full-term stillbirths and deaths during childbirth, according to the study.

The findings by the MBRRACE-UK coalition have prompted concern that some babies are dying because midwives are too busy to provide proper care in maternity units that are often under intense pressure.

The group, led by experts at Oxford and Leicester universities, based their findings on an in-depth analysis of what went wrong with 78 of the 225 deaths in 2015.

Too often maternity staff delay a decision to get a baby out or fail to properly monitor the baby’s heartbeat, they found. One in four such deaths occurs because a maternity unit, especially a delivery suite, is struggling with “staffing and capacity problems”, the research shows.

“The main issues identified were: care before labour was established, including induction; monitoring during labour; delay in expediting birth; heavy workloads of the units; a lack of joint obstetric and neonatal inputs into bereavement care; and a lack of rigour in the local review of the deaths,” said Elizabeth Draper, a professor of perinatal and paediatric epidemiology at Leicester University.

The report found that although improved care has more than halved the number of such deaths since 1993, babies were still dying unnecessarily because of:

  • Delays by staff in inducing one in three babies who were due to be induced. “There was a significant delay in both the decision to expedite the birth and in actually achieving birth in approximately a third of the deaths reviewed,” the report said.
  • A lack “service capacity” in maternity units proved a significant factor in more than a fifth of cases.
  • Staff failing to recognise that the mother-to-be was in transition to the active (second) phase of labour and therefore not starting proper monitoring of the baby’s health. This occurred in one in eight of the 78 cases studied.

“The panel consensus was that in nearly 80% of deaths improvements in care were identified which may have made a difference to the outcome for the baby,” MBBRACE-UK concluded.

Although such deaths are happening less often, the experts said a growing number of babies were being born to women “who have risk factors associated with an increased risk of perinatal death”, including being very overweight. Obesity and the increasing trend towards older motherhood are making childbirth more complex for maternity staff.

“Cases of stillbirth and neonatal death have a devastating emotional impact on parents. The government needs to address, as a matter of urgency, the shortage of midwives and obstetricians, to make sure that women in labour are properly cared for. Too often midwives are overworked and unable to give women the attention they need,” said Maureen Treadwell, a research officer with the Birth Trauma Association, which helps women who develop post-traumatic stress disorder after childbirth.

In a speech on Tuesday on maternity safety, Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, will announce plans to ensure that when a baby dies or suffers life-changing injuries at birth in England, there will be an independent investigation into what happened.

The Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, which Hunt set up this year to improve patient safety across the NHS, will conduct the inquiries. Coroners may also be able to look into full-term stillbirths under Hunt’s plan.

Hunt is expected to say: “The tragic death or life-changing injury of a baby is something no parent should have to bear, but one thing that can help in these agonising circumstances is getting honest answers quickly from an independent investigator. Too many families have been denied this in the past, adding unnecessarily to the pain of their loss.”

Charities welcomed the move. Elizabeth Duff, a senior policy adviser at the parenting charity NCT, said: “It’s shocking and heartbreaking that in nearly 80% of cases, improvements in care may have made a difference to the outcome for the baby. Staffing shortages mean midwives are under enormous pressure which can lead to situations that have a devastating impact on families.”

Dr David Evans, a consultant neonatologist and a vice-president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “Neonatal units have a strict set of service standards in place in order to protect their vulnerable patients but … many units fail to meet these standards due to workforce pressures.”