‘Our NHS people matter’ – five years of the Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES)

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We recently published the fifth annual Workforce Race Equality Standard (WRES) data report into the experiences of black and minority ethnic (BME) and white staff in our NHS. We know and are fully expecting people, BME and white, to look at the data and say, ‘Look at that, the WRES has been in existence for five years, the pace of change is too slow, it’s not working, let’s abandon it and do something else.’ My team and I are fully expecting these questions, the raised eyebrows and the scepticism that comes when you are trying to change the culture in an organisation as big as the NHS where processes and systems are embedded and change is slow.

Race inequality is one of the most complex, difficult and intractable problems that we have to deal with in the twenty first century. It is an issue that has been over 400 years in the making and realistically, it will take more than five years and the WRES team of fewer than ten people to put it right.

However, what we can do is to shine a light on the importance of race equality in the NHS, how it benefits our staff and ultimately our patients. This I believe we have done successfully over the last five years. We would love to move at the pace of revolutionary change, but it is evolutionary change that is happening in practice.

So, here’s the good news.

The WRES is an assessment of race equality in the NHS based on a series of indicators. What we call the ‘process’ or ‘operational’ indicators are improving.

Year on year, the gap between BME and white experiences for indicators 2, 3 and 4 is closing (see Table 1), which means the NHS is becoming fairer when it comes to recruitment, entry into formal disciplinary processes and non-mandatory training. Although we still have a long way to go, this should be celebrated and credit given to those in the NHS who have been working hard to make a difference.

Table 1 WRES indicators 2–4, 2016–19

WRES indicator2016201720182019
2. Relative likelihood of white applicants being appointed from shortlisting across all posts compared to BME applicants1.571.601.451.46
3. Relative likelihood of BME staff entering the formal disciplinary process compared to white staff1.561.371.241.22
4. Relative likelihood of white staff accessing non-mandatory training and CPD compared to BME staff1.111.221.151.15

I would say that if the NHS puts its shoulder to the wheel and really focuses on these three indicators there is no reason why we can’t reach equity in the experience of BME and white staff on these indicators within the next two years. In anybody’s book that would be really good news.

Making progress on the ‘cultural’ indicators – WRES indicators 5, 6, 7 and 8 which focus on harassment and bullying, opportunities for career progression and discrimination – has been harder and these remained more or less static for the past five years (see Table 2).

The data gives us a very clear picture about people’s experience of working in a very pressured service, how they feel about it and how they perceive they are being treated.

Table 2 WRES indicators 5–8, 2016–19

WRES indicator2016201720182019
5. Percentage of staff experiencing harassment, bullying or abuse from patients, relatives or the public in past 12 monthsBME29.1%28.4%28.5%29.8%
White28.1%27.5%27.7%27.8%
6. Percentage of staff experiencing harassment, bullying or abuse from staff in past 12 monthsBME27.0%26.0%27.8%29.0%
White24.0%23.0%23.3%24.2%
7. Percentage of staff believing that trust provides equal opportunities for career progression or promotionBME73.4%73.2%71.9%69.9%
White88.3%87.8%86.8%86.3%
8. Percentage of staff personally experiencing discrimination at work from a manager/team leader or other colleaguesBME14.0%14.5%15.0%15.3%
White6.1%6.1%6.6%6.4%

There are several things to take from the data including that staff experience is a challenge across the service, regardless of background. The fact that so many NHS staff experience unacceptable behaviour from the public – the very people they are trying to help and care for – is unacceptable. This issue has been highlighted powerfully in the media recently, particularly after a BME consultant surgeon talked about the racial abuse he has endured over many years. Abuse of any member of staff must be stamped out of our NHS. For BME staff that abuse is often even more personal, offensive and hurtful.

Indicator 9 (see Table 3) measures the number of board members, non-executives and executives from BME backgrounds. Between 2018 and 2019 this increased from 7.4 per cent to 8.4 per cent – an improvement but still significantly lower than the proportion of the BME workforce across all NHS trusts and clinical commissioning groups in England (19.9 per cent).

Table 3 WRES indicator 9, 2016–19

WRES indicator2016201720182019
9. BME board membership7.1%7.0%7.4%8.4%

In numbers, BME board members in trusts have increased by 35; that comprises an additional 18 executive and 17 non-executive board members. There has also been a decrease in the number of trusts with no BME representation on the boards, from 96 in 2018 to 73 in 2019 and there are now 30 trusts with three or more BME board members compared to 16 in 2016. This is an improvement on 2014 when The ‘snowy white peaks’ of the NHS report was published but we are still very much in the foothills of the change we need to make.

To conclude, we have made progress over the past five years and I am confident that we will continue going in the right direction. The task now is to pick up the pace of change.

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