Recognising the experience of BME staff: a reason to hope for better

This content relates to the following topics:

Last week I was privileged to deliver the keynote speech at the Mary Seacole Awards. These awards fund health care projects or other educational and development activities that aim to improve the health outcomes of people from black and minority ethnic (BME) communities.

The awards are named after Mary Seacole, a nurse, herbalist and entrepreneur, and an extraordinary leader of her time – who was posthumously awarded the Jamaican Order of Merit for her work nursing wounded servicemen during the Crimean War. Two hundred years on, Mary secured a place in nursing and British history, being voted the greatest black Briton. Her ability to rise above the challenges and obstacles in 19th century society, including standing up to race discrimination and biases – conscious and unconscious – are embodied in the awards and live in each Mary Seacole scholar today.

While progress towards achieving inclusion and benefitting from the diversity that we have in our NHS workforce is progressing at a glacial pace, and with research to be published by NHS England and The King’s Fund towards the end of the year showing that there is much more to do in recognising the experience of BME staff, the awards stand as symbol of what is possible, a reason to hope for better.

The current chair of the Mary Seacole Awards Steering Committee, Janet Fyle, described the achievements of Mary Seacole scholars as ‘Olympic-sized’ for a ‘postage stamp-sized’ investment.

Inspirational speakers included Angela Ditchfield on her work at NHS Blood and Transplant to raise awareness of the importance of tissue, blood and organ donation in BME communities, and Pamela Makwehe, nurse at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust, who shared the findings of her study on different career and leadership outcomes for BME nursing staff. Sarah Amani, a previous scholar (2012/13), spoke about the app she has helped to develop for the South of England Region’s early intervention in psychosis (EIP) programme. This programme is supporting 16 mental health trusts and 50 CCGS to get ready for the first ever waiting times standard to be introduced to mental health.

Giving the keynote address after such inspiring presentations, I was able to reflect that Mary Seacole‘s qualities of curiosity, compassion and proactivity are what is needed in today’s NHS and that the inspiration we derive from her leadership at a time of adversity is exactly what will make a difference to our patients and their relatives today.

I also suggested that, although we have leaders with formal leadership titles, the scholars we had heard from didn't need a title to make change happen. I reflected that, as well as role models such as Mary Seacole, we all have more personal and strong influencers (our mothers and ancestors) on our self-belief and these influences continue to support us in our leadership roles.

The awards were a reminder – if one was needed – of the immeasurable value of nursing and midwifery professionals; my question to those gathered and to those reading this blog is: what could we achieve if we harnessed the talents of our nursing and midwifery workforce to help solve some of our current challenges? While there is still much more to do in achieving equality for those from diverse backgrounds who aspire to leadership roles in health and care, we need to focus on what lies within our circle of control as opposed to our sphere of concern.

I have been reminded several times of a saying I adapted and adopted: ‘the woman who moved a mountain began by removing small stones’. It has never been more important to tend to our personal resilience and hold on to our values as professionals, as carers and as leaders – our patients’ wellbeing and that of our peers depends on it.


Comrade Fish

Comment date
27 April 2016
I think the dismaying thing is that we all know it's going on, but seem powerless to do anything other than to redescribed the problem. I'm just wandering why we need coaching or training. I cannot think of another human endeavour where we let the perpetrators of oppression off the hook but redouble our efforts to modify the behaviour of the oppressed.

Would we accept that women who are sexually abused in the work place probably need coaching in terms of how to dress. This would be deemed an horrendous argument (and rightly so). If nothing else this is offensive at best and simply adding to the equality and lifestyle management industry. Neither does it work as a solution. Demonstrably so.

How does this benefit race relations in an organisation we all pay for through taxes and work in. It surely reinforces the unspoken political belief that BME staff are subspecies of the work force.

I'm saddened by your experiences but not surprised.

I think we need a more intellectually nuanced narrative - rather than the pop-psychology and frankly embarrassing narrative we have at the moment

White staff never need coaching in terms of how to speak to large groups of black staff do they?

Denise Henry

Specialist Perineal Midwife,
St George's University Hospital
Comment date
13 January 2016
Happy New Year Vijaya.
It was nice to see your article. I often look on this website to see how you are doing.
I love the words "a reason to hope for better"
The problem is how long will BME staff have to hang on to the hope? There is so much talk and work that goes into equality, but when we measure will we really see any change. I know there has been some change since Mary Seacole had her battles, but 2 centuries later people like Samantha still feel aggrieved.
I remember you well though and my experience of you was while you were with the NHS. Its good to see that you did shatter the "glass ceiling"

Subodh Dave

Consultant Psychiatrist,
Comment date
02 November 2015
Good blog Vijaya as ever but there is indeed a mountain to climb. Problems start in training and continue through their working lives. As a psychiatrist, I am familiar with the impact of early (and repeated trauma) that many BME Drs have to go through. Early support is critical..I know KF focuses on the NHS but training environments are part of the health system and end up delivering a traumatised workforce. Role models are important but we need to make sure that BME issues are not seen as BME issues but quality of care issues; not merely a moral/political issue but an economic one.

Janet Fyle

Comment date
01 November 2015
Good piece Vijaya. Unfortunately, there are stories such as that of Samantha Gordon. There surely must come a time when the NHS stops wringing its hands and implement visible change to ensure a fair policy for all who Work in the NHS.

Vijaya Nath

Director Leadership Development,
The King's Fund
Comment date
30 October 2015
Thank you for taking the time to read the blog and leave your comment .
Whilst my current role is not based in the NHS I have developed and supported leaders in it for over 18 yrs. I hoped that the blog went some way to conveying that much more is needed to be done to take account of recognising the work and contributions of BME staff at all levels . Your lived experience , your truth is more important . Whilst there is much more to do , shinning a light on the achievements of those such as the Mary Seacole scholars is a reminder to the system of how using the diversity of our workforce can deliver the best care for patients , users and relatives. I would be happy to hear from you in person if that would be helpful my details are on our website.

Samantha Gordon

Comment date
30 October 2015
I wonder if Ms Nath is actually working in the NHS at present? There appears to be a systematic campaign of removing all members of the African and African-Caribbean communities from the NHS akin to how one might remove a bad smell in the toilet. More of these staff are being referred to regulatory bodies, more of them attract harsher punishments. There are also insidious 'back room' campaigns to ostracise such staff making it impossible for them to continue their careers. The system has no means to offer these victims any support at all. I hope this was a good night at the Mary Seacole awards, but the King's Fund appears to be rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic while staff who look like me are being brutally expunged.

Add your comment