Concerted action is needed to bring true equality in the NHS workforce | Joan Saddler OBE

Joan Saddler

We must heed the imperative to develop and deliver meaningful race equality strategies and plans by investing in achieving WRES data improvement targets, resourcing organisational leadership programmes and stepping up opportunities for BME staff, writes Joan Saddler OBE, director of partnerships and equality at the NHS Confederation.

The NHS tends to politely shy away from directly combatting enduring racism within the health service. But the current focus on workforce wellbeing, after a particularly gruelling 12 months, provides an opportunity to resolve the issues identified by the latest latest Workforce Race Equality Standard report.

For five years, WRES data has helpfully held up a mirror to the NHS, detailing a sustained lack of career opportunities for BME staff, highlighting worse day-to-day experiences of working in the NHS, and showing the higher proportion of BME staff experiencing bullying and harassment from colleagues and people using services.

But as we reset services and renew our commitment to workforce wellbeing, NHS boards should ask themselves whether this ‘persistence of outcomes,’ as noted in the report, is acceptable.

If the death of George Floyd is to be catalyst for change, we must heed the imperative to develop and deliver meaningful race equality strategies and plans. This will require investing in achieving WRES data improvement targets, resourcing organisational leadership programmes and stepping up opportunities for BME staff, including through sustained actions to reduce workforce inequality.

Sustainable, targeted actions rooted in organisational anti-racist statements must form the plan of action.

As noted by BME Leadership Network co-chairs Danielle Oum and Ifti Majid in June, leaders have a responsibility to set the tone in respecting others, respecting difference and valuing diversity. They understand their organisations and the interventions (whether direct or more nuanced) needed for improvement. The WRES offers a mandatory starting point to deliver change – and a leadership mandate to use local knowledge and partners to shift structural racism.

NHS staff have been our lifeline throughout the pandemic and have worked tirelessly to combat COVID-19. We have heard of their heroic efforts but also of the toll it has taken, particularly on BME staff. We do them a disservice if we fail to act on the insights laid bare by the WRES reports. Warm words and commitments from boards and managers are meaningless unless backed by concerted action. If current organisational WRES targets remain static, BME staff will continue to bear the daily consequences of inaction.

As the health service looks to the next phase of the pandemic and beyond, let’s ensure that inequality is tackled everywhere we see it, whether in our workforce or in our communities. The BME Leadership Network, which is part of the NHS Confederation, will continue to support organisations with the tools for successful change, based on the experiences of our members.

Joan Saddler OBE is director of partnerships and equality at the NHS Confederation and co-facilitator of the BME Leadership Network. 

This blog appeared in the HSJ on 9 March 2021.

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