‘Now’s the time to make a difference’

After witnessing the pressures her colleagues were facing during the pandemic, Jennifer Fox, who works in an older people’s mental health team in Dundee, was determined to give them support and signed up to become an RCN steward

When the pandemic began, I was on maternity leave. I didn’t return to work until the second wave, but I was hearing stories from my colleagues and watching the news, so I knew how bad it was. I’d been thinking about becoming an RCN steward since I qualified as a nurse but after seeing the impact COVID-19 was having, and how it was making the issues nursing staff were already facing worse, I just thought: “Now is the time to make a difference”.

There hasn’t been a rep in our workplace for a while – in fact, the last RCN rep in our hospital was my great uncle who retired 15 years ago. 

Although we haven’t had a rep on site during my seven years working there, I’ve seen the RCN play a massive part in supporting members, including me. Before I went on maternity leave, I sought advice from the RCN and a local rep from another trust supported me. Having somebody there to give me advice, to back me up and explain what I could do made me feel less anxious.

RCN steward Jennifer Fox

I’m a newly accredited rep and, although I’m not representing members in cases yet, I can already see positive changes. Staff will come to me now and ask for advice or to have a chat. If they’re worried about something, like short staffing, they can come to me and ask: “Is there anything we can do?” I can signpost them to RCN advice or, for the time being, to a more qualified rep.

I think sometimes nursing staff find it hard to speak up – it can be intimidating. Now my colleagues have someone there to support them and to speak up on their behalf if they need. 

Just knowing there is an RCN steward in the workplace has made a massive difference – people feel like they’ll be supported

Reps are there to work with employers and staff and an important part of our role is highlighting any concerns or issues in the workplace. I think having the status of RCN rep does have some weight behind it and it makes people take notice.

Nursing staff everywhere are facing so many issues due to COVID-19, such as staff shortages or nursing staff being redeployed into COVID-19 wards at short notice. At times, it can feel chaotic.

In my workplace, a lot of younger staff nurses and newly registered nurses have reached out to me, asking for advice if they have problems or just checking they’ve done the right thing. Even if it’s nothing formal, I’m there for them to check in with. Just knowing there is an RCN steward in the workplace has made a massive difference – people feel like they’ll be supported.

Taking on the rep role has given me more of a purpose. It can give you the focus to go and do something positive

One of my colleagues has also signed up to become a steward which I think will really help. We can support each other and work together. I’ve had a lot of support from my RCN local office too. They’re at the end of the phone whenever I need anything.

I think the pandemic has highlighted how under-resourced the NHS is. We’re constantly working without enough staff, people aren’t able to take their breaks and they’re going in earlier to catch up. I think previously nursing staff felt they just had to cope. But now there’s so much extra pressure, a lot of staff are off sick and people have had a horrendous time due to the pandemic – it’s much harder to cope. But that’s why the RCN is so important. I think you can see that more clearly now and how it works from top to bottom.

You have the RCN Chief Executive & General Secretary speaking on the UK-wide news and then at a local level you have branches working to make sure members have the right PPE and know what should happen with things like annual leave. I don’t think a lot of people saw it before.

I’ve been given so much support from other reps and my local branch

Previously I didn’t think I had enough experience to become a rep but that’s not the case at all. I’ve been given so much support from other reps and my local branch. I thought it would be individual stewards working in an office on their own, but everyone works as a team and knows each other. It’s really opened my eyes to how much of a community it is.

Taking on the rep role has given me more of a purpose. When you’re feeling disenfranchised because of all the pressures, it can give you the focus to go and do something positive.

Become an RCN rep

The RCN has three types of workplace reps – stewards, safety reps and learning reps. Becoming an RCN rep gives you the chance to make a real difference to your patients, the working lives of yourself and your colleagues, and even the future of nursing.

Find out more about the benefits of being an RCN rep and how to become one.

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