Over the course of the pandemic, many of us have felt a greater appreciation and gratitude for the work of NHS staff and those working on the frontline, risking their lives to save ours. There are so many groups of people who have contribute to our safety, from bus drivers and carers to supermarket shelf-stackers and teachers, but nurses have been exalted above others. The praise is long-overdue - our skilled nurses have been working tirelessly hard for decades - but the virus, and the harrowing images we have seen of Covid-19 wards over the past 12 months, have prompted us to clap, bang on saucepans and share rainbow-covered messages of thanks.
In honour of National Nurses Day, we spoke to numerous nurses working in various areas, from ICU to community care, to find out what to avoid saying to them if you really want to show your appreciation for what they do. May our respect and recognition of their work long continue - and a government pay rise be forthcoming.
1. "I couldn’t do what you do"
This is a well-intended statement that aims to show an appreciation for the work of nurses. The problem is it implies that all nurses do is clean up people’s bodily fluids. You’re right, you probably couldn’t do a nurse’s job, but not for the reasons you think. Being a nurse is hard, and it takes highly competent, highly educated and pragmatic men and women to do it. They act as leaders, carers and clinicians with a vast technical and medical knowledge, as well as strong clinical decision-making skills. It’s a varied, complex and skilled profession with 70-plus specialisms that each involve advanced qualifications.
With every advancement in technology and treatment, more doctor duties are delegated to senior nurses such as prescribing drugs, ordering x-rays, referring patients and diagnosing. So many of us have a limited understanding of what nurses do – it goes far beyond serving food, dishing out medication and wiping the derrieres of patients. Never assume you know what a nurse does day-to-day – next time ask what he or she specialises in.
2. "You're an angel/saint/hero"
We are all grateful for the work that the NHS staff have done during this period, but calling them heroes, angels or saints is not what many healthcare workers want. We all want to show our appreciation, and such tags are often well-intentioned, but many nurses would rather they were avoided. Some feel that these descriptors undermine the skills, experience and qualifications it takes to do their job, while others feel that the rhetoric and platitudes used by the media and government to talk about the NHS is at best changeable and at worst disingenuous, given government cuts to their services over the past decade. At the moment, NHS healthcare workers are saints, but next year, they could be blamed for not dealing with the virus correctly – already, we have seen signals of this from Matt Hancock and his suggestion that nurses are wasting or overusing PPE, a quick way of deflecting responsibility of government failings. The use of wartime rhetoric gives us the impression that deaths and illnesses of healthcare workers are inevitable, when really they are being 'sent over the top' by the politicians who failed to make PPE more widely available.
Another problem is that by putting any category of people on a pedestal, it sanctifies them – and from that glorified point, there's a long way to fall. Nurses are not perfect, they are ordinary people doing their job in difficult circumstances. The heroes and angels tag puts them under huge pressure to be faultless – an unnecessary stress in an already hugely stressful situation. It makes them feel like they’re not entitled to ordinary human feelings of weakness, fear, uncertainty and anxiety. After all, angels don't have souls (nor do they ask for pay rises). They are not miracle workers, and to exalt anyone in this way is an unreasonable expectation to place on their shoulders. By telling nurses and doctors that they are miracle workers, we make them feel like they should be able to do so.
Nurses don’t need to be called heroes or saints. They just want to get on with their job without risking their lives in the processes. They need adequate PPE and mental health services to help them manage the awful things they have seen this past year. They also need adequate pay and better working standards. They don’t need hero worship – beyond the pandemic, they need our respect.
3. "My [insert relative, friend, colleague] was wronged by an NHS worker"
Don’t use the company of a nurse (or any healthcare worker) to discuss any NHS horror stories. The NHS is a huge organisation that is overstretched and under-resourced, leaving a higher risk for error. It employs 1.6 million, so yes there will – as with every other profession – be mistakes, and unfortunately in healthcare, these errors often have bigger consequences than in other jobs. That doesn’t mean that unsuspecting nurses or doctors that you come into contact with outside of their working environments should be used as a complaints board. Everyone who works for the NHS, from doctors and nurses to porters and call handlers, wants to do the best job they can, and to help patients during some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives. For every bad patient experience, there will be another easily forgotten, demonstrating high levels of competence, compassion and hope. Regaling any personal poor NHS experience won’t make you or the nurse you’re talking to feel better. Remember that it is not that person’s fault that you had to deal with a lengthy wait in A&E, or that it took forever for an ambulance to arrive. Lax professional practices can be fatal in healthcare, but file your complaint through the official channels, not someone you’ve just met at a party.
4. "I have (insert respective ailment), what should I do about it?"
If you need medical advice, visit your GP or consult the NHS website. If it’s serious, consider a trip to A&E. Nurses work long enough hours as it is, spare them the details of your minor ailments. Everyone is entitled to a day off, so let them have theirs.
5. "Anything in relation to sexy nurses"
Alas, the legacy of the Carry On sexy nurse caricature still lives on. Yes, we might be living in a more enlightened world when it comes to gender equality, but the idea of nurses as nymph-like handmaids who exist for titillation is still very much real. It exists in comments made by patients, in harassment from inebriated men on nights out, or just in the fact that sexy nurse costumes are still commonplace, which do a fantastic job of sexualising the role entirely. How will the nursing profession ever be taken seriously when they are reduced to subservient, sexy stereotypes? Firstly, and it is depressing that this needs to be said, nurses are not objects – they are skilled professionals. Secondly, not all nurses are women; men account for 11.4 per cent of those in the role. If you see someone behaving inappropriately to a nurse, call them out on it.
6. "Why didn't you want to become a doctor?"
The tacit message here is that being a doctor is a superior job to nursing. It confirms the long-standing prejudices that surround nursing as a lesser profession; that they are all but devoted servants to omnipotent doctors. There are huge differences between doctors and nurses, which draw different people to each role. Nurses spend the most time with patients, meaning they are often first to notice the subtleties in a patient's condition both medically and holistically. This unique patient-nurse relationship, combined with effective communication with doctors, is key to the recovery and correct treatment of anyone ill. Nurses are equally valuable to doctors and the two work in partnership. Do not undermine the technical skills, intelligence, perceptiveness and empathy it takes to do this crucial profession.
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