Work, health and emotional lives of midwives in the United Kingdom: The UK WHELM study

A senior midwife has shared her thoughts on a study looking into the work, health and emotional lives of midwives in the UK which does not appear to have been publicised by the organisation that commissioned it, the Royal College of Midwives. The paper, Work, Health and Emotional Lives of Midwives in the United Kingdom: The UK WHELM study, is accessible on the RCM website but was not shared widely until Dr Helen Shallow wrote about it on the Birth Practice and Politics Forum blog. Reflecting on her week, Dr Shallow raised questions about how certain people and groups seem determined to continue to urge us to ‘stay positive’ in the face of an ever-growing crisis in the maternity services, a struggling NHS and a midwifery profession that is being attacked from all sides.

Carried out by the School of Healthcare Sciences at Cardiff University, the study comprised of a survey of just under 2000 midwives which was commissioned in part to “contribute to the evidence base on how best to support and sustain the midwifery workforce” (Hunter et al 2018).

The findings are of deep concern and evidence significant levels of emotional distress amongst midwives, something that echoed Helen Shallow’s own research. In the RCM-commissioned study:

“83% of participants were suffering from personal burnout and 67% were experiencing work-related burnout. Client-related burnout was low at 15.5%. The personal and work related burnout scores were well above population norms as well as higher than the results from other WHELM collaborating countries.

Over one third of participants scored in the moderate/severe/extreme range for stress (36.7%) anxiety (38%) and depression (33%). This was well above population norms and those of other WHELM countries.

66.6% of participants stated they had thought about leaving the profession within the last six months. The two top reasons were: ‘Dissatisfaction with staffing levels at work’ (60%) and ‘Dissatisfaction with the quality of care I was able to provide’ (52%). Midwives intending to leave had significantly higher levels of burnout, anxiety, stress and depression than those who had not considered leaving.”

Factors associated with high levels of burnout, depression, anxiety and stress included “younger midwives (midwives aged 40 and below), midwives with a disability, midwives with less than 30 years’ experience and clinical midwives, particularly those working rotation in hospital and in integrated hospital/community settings.”

Helen Shallow has carried out her own research into this area, and her findings are echoed here: “The findings I could have predicted, as they mirror my own humble PhD. The direct quotes from the midwives were heart breaking and I had to suppress my tears and anger. The RCM response for not going public with this important study is that midwives need and say they want hope and positivity. There’s that juxtaposition again. If anyone tells it like it is, they are accused of negativity.”

Helen also contributed to Untangling the Maternity Crisis, and further asks, “Are we to stay positive at these stories of neglect of women in labour and abuse of midwives while ministers and senior Trust bureaucrats take advantage of health workers’ good will? Is it enough that they soldier on and do their best? This cannot be allowed to continue.”

No, it cannot. We need to speak out about it and we need to ensure that these midwives’ voices are heard. Please share this, or the BPPF blog post, and let midwives know that you hear them and support them.

Hunter B, Henley J, Fenwick J et al (2018). Work, Health and Emotional Lives of Midwives in the United Kingdom: The UK WHELM study. School of healthcare Sciences, Cardiff University.
Photo by Soroush Karimi on Unsplash

6 comments for “Work, health and emotional lives of midwives in the United Kingdom: The UK WHELM study

  1. Susan McAulay
    September 27, 2018 at 8:12 pm

    Very dissatisfied with RCM not publishing this study!

  2. Maxine Bracey
    September 30, 2018 at 9:09 am

    Resilience training is the latest use of funds for midwives – along with many other training sessions that are not appropriate for midwives. This all adds to stress levels and takes us away from women. It is time we had a new midwife specific union/professional body instead of the RCM. They do not represent midwives – it is now a group of self-serving mostly academics who will destroy the profession for their personal gain.

    • Eithne Halliday
      October 9, 2018 at 10:26 am

      Maxine I simply have to say this, I totally agree with your assessment of the RCM. I had paid my fees to the RCM for 44years, yet when I needed their help on one occasion in 2006 I found I was blocked from getting through to any relevant department or speaking to any relevant person, always some lame excuse, they are in a meeting, I will get them to ring you back but never did.
      After many months of getting nowhere I resigned and joined Unison.

  3. Samantha
    September 30, 2018 at 9:36 am

    Think that the fact the report has not be widely shared speaks volumes

  4. Sally
    October 4, 2018 at 7:18 pm

    The RCM are failing in their duty to midwives and women if they do not publish this report

  5. Allison Whitehead
    October 7, 2018 at 12:29 pm

    Let’s not use energies blaming the RCM for not publishing the WHELM study – I am a RCM activist, a Practising Midwife of 20+ years, wife and mother – I dread to think where maternity services would be today without the RCM Movement – lobbying Governments, promoting best practices and standing up and supporting its members! The RCM Board are well aware of the pressures placed on its members during these lean times and the effects on staff’s health and well-being in the work place. The Rcm Caring For You Campaign was implemented on the back of a health and well-being survey/research of its members. Trusts have had to act, acknowledge and take steps to care for its staff – and they are doing this. Dwelling on negativity and what is lacking only produces more of the same – positivity, kindness, support and respecting each other is a force to be reckoned with! Stop damning our only supporter!

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