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'Compassionate care': Just for staff or for the entire health service?

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Student Affairs editor, Anthony Johnson, considers how in the long run better treatment of NHS staff would also reap rewards for the NHS, its patients and the government

My counterpart, Alan Brownlee, recently wrote a stellar article about the risks of not giving nurses a pay rise.

Reading this blog got me thinking. I have always hated the notion of nurses as “angels”. Our historical roots lie in the concept of creating virtuous women who would be obedient and subservient to their medical masters.

As we have grown and professionalised into the specialised workforce that we now are (and hopefully will continue to be) we have struggled to throw off the shackles of our history.

This idealised version of our profession was all that I could see in parliament during the recent #ScrapTheCap debate. From both sides of the political spectrum, we’re tireless angels working in a profession that is ‘not just a job’. How are we ever to be taken seriously if this is the way we allow our elected representatives to represent us?

I am not an angel.

I am not perfect.

I can laugh and I can cry.

I have a family and responsibilities outside of my role as a nurse that can affect my practice and the patients that I look after.

My humanity allows me to fail but it also allows me to innovate and create the changes in practice that will improve my patients’ care. This is why our managers and the government need to protect us and implement interventions to protect our health and mental wellbeing.They can no longer ignore NHS staff by saying they are angels in service of their vocation. The government has to treat staff with the compassion they would expect them to show their patients.

“The NHS is nonsensically continuing to be underfunded”

Recently, my mother was one such patient. She, like I, knew that it was the humanity of the NHS that made it a place where she could receive exceptional care. It’s why I am willing to work within such an organisation and why I can realistically lay no blame at the staff for my mother’s passing.

That doesn’t mean that it hasn’t been hard to lose her. I have lost count of how many times I have thought of something interesting to say to her and realised that she won’t be at the other end of the phone rolling her eyes at my self-righteous tirades. It has affected my practice and has made me question how I can continue to practice in such a stressful and ill-rewarded profession. After all, we are the lowest paid graduates, there are no safe staffing ratios and the NHS is nonsensically continuing to be underfunded.

We need to place our staff’s health at the centre of our health service’s priorities. Patient-centred care? That’s what all the academics are talking about these days. But what about staff-centred employment in a bid to improve retention? We should provide adequate mental health support for our staff, time away to let them de-stress and educational opportunities so that they have job satisfaction (amongst other interventions to achieve this).

“Quite honestly, the list of ways that employers could help us are endless”

Quite honestly, the list of ways that employers could help us are endless. If there were shorter shifts, subsidised meals and gym memberships our staff would be healthier instead of struggling with back problems and obesity.

Let’s stop blaming our health professionals and actually try to help them because if we don’t, this notion of ‘angels’ will be our undoing.

The government has already started the ‘renegotiation’ of Agenda for Change. How long before they take away our unsociable hours and punish parents, like myself, for the privilege of wanting to care for others whilst knowing that their children are cared for?

Never forget that one of the reasons nursing became a profession was so that women could provide for themselves. Unsociable hours and the conditions in the NHS are linked to the idea that we are, and will probably always be, a female-dominated workforce. So, when the government tries to attack us, as they did junior doctors, they are doing it to strike against women and the idea that they would ever have a right to earn as much as a man.

“Without those ‘money-grabbing’ nurses, the NHS would collapse”

If ever we see headlines about ‘money-grabbing’ nurses wanting to protect their pay and conditions we should remember to advocate for ourselves and point out that without those ‘money-grabbing’ nurses the NHS would collapse. It is because the government has cut our pay and made our working conditions so intolerable that we even have a retention crisis. Should they and the mainstream media continue to victimise us it will only get worse.

The NHS is an expression of the best of humanity. Surely it should treat its staff humanely?

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