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'Racist abuse against staff must be taken seriously'

Michael Baptiste
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It is a fact that there is racism in the NHS and other sectors of society.

The NHS and those associated with it are not an island unto themselves. There is an impact on health and a barrier to the the determinants of health through racism.

If racism is addressed by action and not just words, it will help to promote health and create a healthy working environment for all concerned.

It is with the deepest disappointment I am forced to revisit a topic that should have been put to rest given the fact that it is 2019. I am appalled to still find that black and minority ethnic (BME) staff are subjected to racism within the mental health setting, particularly with reference to patients and by extension in the general nursing setting too.

I have had first-hand experience working in the general nursing setting supervising patients one-on-one who need psychiatric nursing intervention.

“While most incidents of racist abuse from patients are reported, in some cases they will not be acted on”

The general reason for such speciality within the general nursing setting is that patients with a background of mental health problems, or who may be subject to treatment under the Mental Health Act may cause the general nursing intervention to be undermined. 

I would like to highlight that racism towards BME staff by patients is prevalent. While most incidents of racist abuse from patients are reported, in some cases they will not be acted on.

Some BME staff are labouring under the misconception that they are simply expected to ignore such racist abuse, because it is considered unprofessional to be upset or hurt by racist comments made by patients.

They believe that they should not make a fuss and just get on with their job. Most BME staff just ignore racist abuse, even using illness, medication, confusion and old age and as reasons for racist abuse from patients, thereby accepting it as part of their job.

I know that it’s can be difficult to deal with racist abuse from patients who may not be in full control of their behaviour – be it due to their illness or effect of medication – but racist comments are not acceptable. No one should have to suffer racist abuse. It’s not part of their job.

It may be argued that nurses and managers on general wards are less aware of these issues than those in mental health settings where there may be greater experience in handling challenging behaviour.

This argument, though it may sound credible, is not the correct inference to arrive at, given that it’s the management of the general nursing wards who made the decision to have registered mental health nurses work on the general nursing wards to deal with any mental health issues from patients receiving general nursing care.

What I would like to see happen when staff are racially abused is that such abuse should be taken seriously.

On the other hand if it’s not addressed it becomes institutionalised.

Moreover, racist abuse in the workplace affects the performance of an organisation by creating a climate of isolation and hostility and this can ultimately detract from the development of an effective and efficient workplace and by extension a health service.

It has the potential to reduce the efficiency and level of work performance of those employees who are subjected to such abuse and in a wider sense, will inhibit the full development of staff potential. It could also affect staff retention.

Racist abuse is not part of my job and there should be a climate of responsibility in which such abuse is unacceptable. Employers usually recognise the right of employees to work in an environment free from racial abuse.

This right, in my view, should apply not only in respect to racist abuse by other work colleagues but also to anyone else they deal with at work – including patients.

May I suggest the way forward. In keeping with treating the issue of racist abuse seriously, management should show their commitment to this type of abuse from patients by publishing a policy statement which makes it clear that racist abuse from patients will not be tolerated.

This policy should become part of the ethos of the organisation, giving anyone who thinks they are being racially abused, as well as those who may witness such abuse of others, the confidence to raise the matter and the courage to speak out against such unacceptable behaviour.

Management should designate a senior member of staff to deal with cases of racist abuse from patients, given the fact that racist abuse from staff is already being dealt with by the trust disciplinary policy.

Training should also be provided for all staff to keep abreast of current issues related to human rights, racial abuse from patients and the sensitivity to cultural and racial issues.

If informal action proves insufficient to deal with persistent acts of racial abuse by patients, then management should reserve the right to take further, formal action, including considering the withdrawal of services to the patient concerned.

The aforementioned policy statement should be displayed in prominent positions throughout the hospital. It should also be published in patient information leaflets.

The above may not be a panacea. However, it will definitely send a clear message that racism is not part of my job as a registered mental health nurse.

Michael Baptiste is a mental health nurse

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