I’m going to write about student nurse drop out rates and I will almost definitely get to that in a moment. First, I need to say something about the word ‘passion’ or more importantly, the fact that so many people use it when they are not referring to the fruit, ‘the suffering or death of Jesus’ or the ‘strong and barely controllable emotion’
When my daughter was writing her personal statement for university last year she asked what she should avoid saying. “The word ‘passionate’ to describe your feelings about the subject you are applying for, the university that teaches it, any of your hobbies, your cat, trees, social justice, contemporary dance, wood, the music of Einaudi or black cherry yoghurt. Don’t use it ever.”
“But dad,” she said, for she is her father’s daughter, “It is compulsory, if you aren’t passionate you’re not really interested.”
From students applying to become nurses and feeling unable to articulate why, to experienced managers desperately trying to imbue whatever policy they are selling with something pretending to be emotion, everyone is passionate now, frankly they must be exhausted.
‘Passion’ – if spoken it is accompanied with a thumping of the chest; if written it demands an exclamation mark. It is a motif for dedication, a conversation stopper. When the young person at interview is asked why they would like to study nursing and replies: “because I am passionate about helping people” it is unkind to wince. We may however say, “that’s nice, can you tell me a bit more about that drive please?” And hope for something other than, “It’s passion. I’m passionate. I have long been impassioned.”
Recent figures tell us around a third of student nurses are not completing their courses when they are due to. The figures were drawn from the years 2013-15, before the bursary was removed. Are we surprised? Of course not. Do we have a sense of why? We do, we listen to nurses when they leave. We know that nursing costs, and that the logistics and compromises required can wear people down. We know nurses and student nurses are often poor enough to need food banks. We know it is hard and that many admirable, brilliant young people find they don’t want to do it.
Perhaps nursing is still infected by its distant past. A vocation rather than a profession; a collection of attitudes and habits rather than skills and qualities. A life of sacrifice rather than a transformational endeavour?
Recent events at the RCN certainly suggest some folk are stuck in the 1950s and perhaps that is indicative of wider cultural difficulties. As a long-standing lecturer I have long worried about the extent to which nurse education presents as an obstacle course rather than an educational process.
It seems to me that the thing we demand most from young nurses is a willingness to make sacrifice. To be poor, to have less holiday, more emotional labour, more assessment and less attention.
We don’t always ask them how they will look after themselves but rather insist they show us that they are passionate, that they ‘want it badly enough to make sacrifices’. As if nursing is an endurance test. If you want to join our club let us see you bleed. It is outdated and emotionally immature. It is unkind and unhelpful. Culturally it is toxic.
Want to keep nurses young and old? Be kinder, more respectful, curious and individualise your attention. In short, show them what a good nurse looks like as you teach them how they may nurse. And that applies to when they are in practice or in class. Model thoughtfulness and it becomes more available.
Mark Radcliffe is author of Stranger than Kindness.
Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe