Standing shoulder to shoulder: nursing with courage and compassion

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Shaped by my parents’ and my personal values, I was lucky to know early on what I wanted to do with my life – to become a nurse. Today my career has far superseded my childhood aspirations. I have worked for the National Health Service for more than 25 years in a number of organisational cultures, some of which I thrived in and others I just survived. These experiences, both positive and negative, impacted on my confidence, self-esteem and growth. As a black senior nurse I recognise the struggle many people of difference have in their leadership journey. I am passionate about promoting fairness, leading with compassion and creating culture where people can bring their best selves to work.

'Covid-19 has brought out the best in people working in health and social care. I have witnessed teams working with a common purpose, going above and beyond'

I took up post as Chief Nurse at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust on the 30 March 2020. As a newly appointed Chief Nurse I bring a depth and breadth of experience and have completed a number of qualifications and leadership courses. However, nothing could quite prepare me for the reality of my new post as I landed in my new organisation at the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. I had thought through my introduction into my new organisation and had meticulously developed a 90-day plan following intelligence gathered from colleagues. By the time I started the world had changed so dramatically that my plan was not worth the paper it was written on. As a leader it was important for me to be adaptable and responsive to the needs of the organisation.

Covid-19 has brought out the best in people working in health and social care. I have witnessed teams working with a common purpose, going above and beyond. Individuals outstanding and caring in their practice, ready to serve – but this unknown virus meant that they were not fully aware of the costs to themselves and others. The Covid-19 pandemic brought with it an increased risk to health professionals, and whilst working in some parts of health care carry risk, nurses and midwives do not sign up to put our lives at risk in the name of duty, but that’s what many have done. Working in this profession comes with great responsibility and privilege but this can and must not be at the expense of our own health. The demand on our nurses and midwives is extraordinary: as care givers we spend our time putting our patients first and this often leads us not to consider our own wellbeing. Working in the NHS is always dynamic and the pandemic has exacerbated this. I feel the palpable anxiety among many as the true impact in all aspects of their lives is revealed.

I understand that it is even more important during this time of escalating workload and increased risk for me to lead with compassion. When managing in a crisis it is essential to be visible accessible and communicate openly. As the pandemic progressed and the disproportionate impact upon black, Asian and minority ethnic people was reported, ten weeks into my role, the worst thing imaginable happened. One of my health support workers lost his life to Covid-19. The loss was felt throughout the organisation as we realised that this virus had no boundaries. The responsibility weighs heavily on my shoulders and the additional impact on deprived and diverse communities meant that I also experienced a personal loss of a friend, aged 47, to Covid-19 on 7 May.

'I understand that it is even more important during this time of escalating workload and increased risk for me to lead with compassion'

Standing shoulder to shoulder and working alongside staff was important as we all fought the unknown enemy. Small acts mattered such as engaging and really listening, I set up open forums and invited nurses and midwives to speak about what mattered to them.

I connected immediately with the recent report from The King’s Fund on The courage of compassion, which was written against the backdrop of the global pandemic, but we must also acknowledge some of the cultural and historic issues that exist in nursing and midwifery too. The report is a sobering and at times difficult read as the pages catalogue the reality of the impact of working in the NHS and its impact on nurses’ and midwives’ wellbeing, mental health and physical health. As leaders we are the caretakers and must support these individuals, and extend the compassion they give to so many to them. ‘Let us treat the cause not just the symptoms,’ and leading with compassion is essential to developing cultures where nurses and midwives can thrive.

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