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Two different flavours of denial

October 14, 2014

Are you Proud to Nurse (or ‘Proud2Nurse’)? breezes the Nursing Times in its latest feel good campaign. My answer? Of course I’m proud to nurse! Why wouldn’t I be? To devote my working life to the service of others is both an honour and a privilege. How many other jobs are there where you might, for example, be chosen as the person to whom a lady with a severely life-limiting prognosis unburdens a terrible secret she’s lived with since her childhood? “Before I die” she told me “I need to get it off my chest, and you seem…understanding. The only other person I’ve told was my sister, and she didn’t believe me”. After a setback like that, imagine how hard it must have been to find the courage to confide in someone new. Imagine how humbling it was for me to be the person she confided in. So for that patient alone: yeah, I’m proud to nurse.

I’m also proud that nursing is now all-graduate entry, with all the opportunities that brings for the future development of the profession; I’m proud of the many nurses and student nurses who seriously and responsibly engage with each other on social media; and I’m proud of the outstanding but too-often unsung contributions nurses make to patient wellbeing up and down the country, every day of the year. But I am not proud of the way we are being led. Take ‘Proud2Nurse’ itself. I appreciate that it’s an idea dreamt up by a publicity-hungry magazine rather than an example of official nursing policy, but still – is it just co-incidence that it was launched at around the same time as unions started balloting members on industrial action?

To be fair to the Nursing Times, it has carried articles on the proposed strikes, including a very pro-striking opinion piece by Gail Adams, head of nursing at Unison. Amongst other things, she reminded readers that ‘nursing is a political force, which I believe the government is taking for granted’ and ‘it really is time for nurses to stand up for themselves so that they can stand up for patients’. Hoorah! – but the very next week, it was back to business-as-usual with an editorial entitled ‘We want to know why you are #proud2nurse’ – preferably in 140 characters or less – and the usual Pollyanna narrative of ‘optimistic attitude conquers all’ and ‘it’s up to individuals to motivate themselves and stay positive’. The message – at least for me – was: forget all that nasty striking nonsense. Just be nice people.

It’s a message with which no less a personage than Satya Nadella, Chief Executive Officer of Microsoft, apparently endorses. Asked last week by a delegate at a conference for women in computing what advice he would give to female colleagues who are uncomfortable with asking for a pay rise, he said (in remarks for which he later apologised) “it’s not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along” and implied that women who don’t ask for higher pay have a ‘superpower’ that confers ‘good karma’ and makes them look like the kind of people others can trust. Quite rightly, these opinions provoked major outrage. But are they so very different from what our leaders are telling us? And where is our anger?

I went out on the picket line on a wet October morning not because I thought it would do much good (I didn’t think it would do any good, as regular readers will know); rather, I joined the picket line because I am not going to be told that it is ‘un-nurselike’ to hold political views. I can care about patients; I can take direct action. Whatever anyone says, the two are not mutually exclusive, and the more the Chief Nursing Officer for England tries to persuade me that the only legitimate reaction in the face of year-on-year of real-terms pay cuts is to ‘be professional’, the more I want to down tools. Even completely understandable feelings of anger and frustration that fall short of strike action are, it seems, not allowed. The only message Jane Cummings had for nurses on the eve of the strike was ‘be professional’. As if we wouldn’t be.

On the nub issue of pay – what the strike was all about – I am not, as it happens, entirely at one with my union: I think they should start negotiations. A four-hour-long walkout followed by a week-long work-to-rule on the back of derisory turn-out in the members’ ballot is not going to deflect anyone’s government policy. In a society that, rightly or wrongly, has become completely obsessed with how ‘deserving’ any given individual is, no automatic (or semi-automatic) annual increments pay structure is going to survive unaltered. A new pay deal wouldn’t necessarily be all bad: it might give the opportunity to incentivise individuals and recognise excellence. Why not look at it and then discuss the options with membership in a grown-up way?  The longer negotiations are delayed, the longer staff agony over pay continues. Is this really fair?

And there is room for manoeuvre. Firstly, it could be the case that the increments system actually saves the NHS money because (as Sarah Montague sort-of suggested to Jeremy Hunt when she interviewed him on Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning), it delays for up to seven years staff’s arrival at their ‘true’ salary. For that reason, some version of it could still be viable. On the other side of the table is Mr Hunt’s totally irresponsible scare-mongering that if the government were to grant an across-the-board 1% rise “hospital chief executives would lay off around 4,000 nurses this year and around 10,000 nurses next year”. What?! Has he heard himself? We’re in the midst of a recruitment crisis! In a situation where (as he also told Ms Montague) “we can’t have short staffed wards, that was wrong and we’re going to deal with that” and “it is a waste of money spending so much on agency staff”, is it really plausible to argue that hospitals could give 14,000 nurses the boot?

That is not to say that the money to pay for a higher wages bill would not have to be found somewhere. We would probably see more downbanding of posts and a return to the freezing of some vacancies. But the real worry, from Hunt’s perspective, must be that rather than sacking nurses, hospitals would be tempted to fund the pay rise by reducing services – leading to bed closures and longer waiting times over the winter months and in the run-up to the general election.

So to return to the Nursing Times‘ original question – am I proud to nurse? For the buzz I still get from knowing that I am doing my best for my patients – yes I am. But from a professional point of view, I feel that my choice is between two different flavours of denial: either a happy-clappy fairy land where all you need are smiley faces and rosy cheeks, or an entrenched, outdated vision of industrial relations. Where is the intelligent, engaged leadership that any all-graduate profession has the right to expect? Proud2nurse? Not on this showing.

For the Gail Adams opinion piece, see:





  1. lesley58 permalink

    Well done, you have once again summed up succintly what is wrong with the hierarchy that dictates to our profession, without having a clue what we do ( do they actually care?) or how their glib insincere pronouncements affect the patients.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Lesley. I would very much like to know what alternatives to the current settlement are feasible, and be allowed to make up my own mind. I’m not happy with the real-terms wage cuts and the slap in the face that the government has given nurses by refusing to implement in full the Pay Review Body’s recommendations, but the unions’ continuing refusal to negotiate has done nothing more than get us into an impasse.

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