5 Mar 2015

N H Stress: the need for a human face on the data

Poole hospital by Barret Bondon

While reporting on the increases in stress-related illness in NHS staff, I relied freedom of information requests sent to hospitals and ambulance services.

Most NHS trusts were great at responding to my request, providing full datasets outlining the situation in their area.

The dataset, consisting of around 500 figures, revealed a strong increase in the amount of stress-related leave that nurses have been taking in recent years. Specifically, it told us, among other statistics:
  • There has been a 48 per cent increase in the amount of days taken by London nurses due to stress-related illnesses in the last three years.
  • 1,497 nurses at 31 London NHS trusts had to take time off because of stress in 2014 - up 27 per cent on 2012.
  • The nurses concerned took an average of 38 days off each because of their mental health.

But what does this mean? It’s easy to see that this is a large increase – even when considering an increase in nursing and paramedic staff of around five per cent – but the numbers themselves are not enough.

It fails to provide any real story. We know more staff have gone off sick with stress, but why? We don’t have context; we don’t have an explanation: we don’t know what it’s like to be one of these mentally ill people.

It doesn’t give us empathy: it fails to provide a human face whose story we can learn about. This is why it’s essential to get case studies.

The process of finding and talking to nurses and paramedics showed me how important this is. It makes the data human. It allows the charts and maps to stand out – actually giving context to your work.

The new ways of searching for stories, through sourcing, scraping and cleaning data usually only work when married to more traditional methods such as interviewing.

I have so far interviewed five nurses and paramedics about their stories. These range from a paramedic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after her work in Afghanistan, to a Dorset nurse who has only been in a hospital for a year and is already feeling the strain of working in a service under pressure.

Each one of these people has brought a new side to the story. In the data, they add another ‘1’ to the spreadsheet. Their stories, however, are worth so much more than this.

This series of case studies are published on my blog dedicated on the subject, and have brought home to me the importance of finding a human face to tell the story behind the data.

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