WREN Stories: Race in the workplace
Sajimon Madathil, our Clinical Lead for Bank Staffing, reflects on the challenges faced by BAME staff when it comes to career progression
I still remember the day I landed in London some 16 years ago and boarded a coach to Leeds, to start my nursing degree at Leeds Metropolitan University. I sometimes reminisce about my journey on the bus as it sped up the M1. It was a new world – new people, sights, sounds and structures, and I was dreaming of a bright future. I was a mature student with a first degree, having spent several years voluntary working in Catholic missions in East Africa teaching in schools and working with youth. Nursing certainly was a career change but still supporting people in need, something I really enjoyed doing. I was very far away from home – Kerala, the land of coconut palms at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent. An Asian cabbie drove me from Leeds bus station to my hall of residence in Headingley. On the way I had a quick glance at my university and noted several Indian takeaways along Hyde Park. Mary Morris International residence had students from all over the world and I spent a comfortable first night – I made it but this was only the first step of my new journey!
Three long years of nurse training was quite an experience! I enjoyed my training but experienced racism from some fellow students as well as patients. Identifying racism for what it was took me a while. I may have been naive, but I could not imagine people would behave like this. When you are a minority in a social space you feel small and often struggle to find a voice – you somehow conform and learn to know your place. Your self-confidence and sense of worth diminish, and sadly it affects your aspirations too. But it was not all doom and gloom – I had tremendous support from many tutors, lasting friendship from fellow students and excellent mentoring from practice placements across Leeds and York Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. My first job as a mental health nurse was on Ward 3 at The Becklin Centre. I loved working there as colleagues were really supportive and soon we got one of the best managers I’d ever had, who transformed our team with his compassionate leadership. My wife, who is a general nurse from India, could not believe when I got my band 6 position on the ward in less than three years! This is significant when you know a lot of BAME nurses in the UK struggle to progress beyond band 5.
I enjoyed supporting our service users, mentoring student nurses, providing leadership on the ward and gained some management skills along the way. I was delayed discharges co-ordinator on the ward and attended meetings with senior managers – presenting cases on my ward. Slowly I began to see the bigger picture of the complexities and inter-dependencies between health and social care provision, role of an integrated care pathway and the need for working across organisations to bring the best outcome for our service users. Attending band 6 forums provided a great opportunity to network with peers and contribute to practice development. My curiosity about determinants of health and wellbeing led me to pursue a master’s in public health at the University of Leeds during this period, supported by the Trust.
Four years into my band 6 post, I was seconded to the ward manager position on Ward 5 at The Newsam Centre and later gained a permanent team manager position at the Treatment Unit back at Becklin. I then worked as interim ward manager on Ward 2 at The Mount for nearly a year before gaining my current post within the workforce directorate as Clinical Lead for Bank Staffing. I love this job where I can influence how bank staff are viewed and treated across the Trust. The majority of bank staff are from BAME backgrounds and a good percentage within this group have South-East Asian heritage. Bank forums have been successful in giving a voice to this dispersed yet vital staff group, who currently make up about 30% of the workforce at the Trust. The Trust Board and our CEO support and attend these forums. Bank staff were included in the Trust Staff Survey last year for the first time. There’s now career progression for bank staff where they can be fast-tracked into substantive positions without another interview. It was a proud yet humbling moment when I received the first Trust Award for Equality and Inclusion last year in recognition of my work with our bank staff. We still have a long way to go. Culture change takes time and sustained effort from all parties involved.
If we are honest about the equality and diversity agenda, we need to see more colour at the snowy white peak of our organisation. We need role models up there who are keen to inspire and support others. There are many talented BAME staff at the Trust who need to get all the support and encouragement they can if they are to progress. Having BAME representation on interview panels is a good starting point but a policy statement on career progression will provide greater transparency and accountability amidst concerns about cherry picking best fits and side-lining experienced and skilled BAME staff. Minority staff face many disadvantages, both systemic and personal. It’s a shame that many experienced and skilled staff remain at entry level in their professions whilst young white graduates climb up the career ladder, making them wonder ‘what is it that I am lacking here?’ Many minority staff spend years collecting certificates but struggle to get a promotion. Some develop anxiety and stress and give up hope altogether. Like me, for many, English is not their first language. Although their written language can be very good, many find spoken English to be an issue – including fluency and even accent. The trust can do more and extend the coaching offer to include interview coaching/preparation. Competition is tougher for higher jobs and interview preparation can be exhausting when you have competing priorities at home and work. The Trust is heading in the right direction, with an active Workforce Race Equality Network and BAME forum. Legislation and race equality standards can be empowering, but for me, real empowerment starts with allowing myself to accept that I am just as good as my white colleagues.