• 16
  • MAY

Working for the NHS

by Jack Saunders

As an institution the National Health Service has had a profound social and cultural impact. For everyone living in Britain the establishment of the NHS has helped shape both our experiences of health and our ideas about society. But for some groups, the importance of their relationship with the NHS seems to be more profound. People with disabilities often note its importance in determining their quality of life. Others who’ve suffered from potentially terminal diseases frequently credit the NHS with having saved their lives. Meanwhile, politicians from Bevan to Blair have used the NHS as a central part of their attempts to persuade the electorate of their merits.

As important as the NHS has been for all these groups however, arguably the section of society whose lives have been most profoundly affected by the foundation and development of the NHS has been its employees. For millions of people the NHS has occupied most of their working life, providing not just a livelihood, but for many an occupation, a vocation and a sense of purpose and identity. In its first full year the NHS employed over 400,000 people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, making it Britain’s third largest employer behind the National Coal Board and the British Transport Commission.

By 1961 it had become the largest organisation in the country, employing more than half a million staff in a dizzying array of roles. Many worked in the health care occupations with which we are most familiar, with doctors, dentists, nurses and midwives accounting for 46 per cent of the total. Meanwhile the rest were employed in supplying and maintaining NHS facilities, or in positions related to administration, scientific or technical work.

Alongside managers, secretaries, cleaners, porters and cooks, the NHS employed social workers, biochemists, chiropodists, darkroom technicians, audiologists, laboratory technicians, medical photographers, occupational therapists, opticians, orthoptists, pharmacists, physicists, physiotherapists, psychologists, radiographers, remedial gymnasts, speech therapists, dietitians, chaplains and more. Amongst the maintenance and domestic staff, you could find engineers, builders, boiler stokers, bricklayers, carpenters, gardeners, laundry workers, farmers, butchers, bakers, ward orderlies, hostel wardens, housekeepers, tailors, shoemakers, hairdressers, barbers, drivers, telephonists and storekeepers. And that’s not counting those like ambulance drivers, district nurses and G.Ps, who contributed to the service but who were not directly employed by the NHS.

Each of these different categories of worker made a vital contribution to the services that the NHS provided, and each had a very different experience of work. Uncovering those different experiences is a huge part of what People’s History of the NHS (with your help) hopes to achieve during our project and with that in mind, today we’re launching a new survey directed at NHS staff past and present.


The survey, which doesn’t take long to complete, encourages people who’ve worked for the NHS (or work for it now) to record their life histories and reflect on what they did (or do) at work and how they feel about it. We are asking people, no matter their job, what it means to work for the NHS. Does it mean something different to a porter, a speech therapist or a nurse? What kind of employer was the NHS if you were a doctor, or a canteen cook? Was the NHS a special employer or just another large, anonymous organisation? And how are people’s feelings about working for the NHS shaped by their background? Does it mean something different to middle class or working class people? Or to women and men? Or to people born outside Britain?

Our survey offers NHS staff past and present the opportunity to anonymously record their experiences, and to offer their own thoughts and feelings about working for the NHS. Once completed, your survey responses will not only feed into our own research and writing, but will form part of our new archive collection, contributing to future understanding of the NHS and its place in British life.

The more voices we can get, the richer our archive will be, so we encourage everyone to complete the survey and to spread the word and share the survey with any NHS staff past and present that they know. Once completed you can simply save the survey on your computer and send it to us either by email ( or by post (People’s History of the NHS project, Centre for the History of Medicine, Warwick University, CV4 7AL).

4 thoughts on “Working for the NHS

  1. I have completed the questionnaire. Had difficulty in saving the text since it had to stop partway through. Have it on a pdf document which I will try and email… not sure where yet or whether I can send it through you website.

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