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Decade after decade, compassion remains at the heart of nursing

Today, 12 May 2022, marks 202 years since the birth of visionary nurse Florence Nightingale. We now celebrate this as International Nurses Day, an opportunity to reflect on the unique contribution of nurses across the world.

In 1854 we saw Florence Nightingale set off to Turkey with a team of nurses caring for soldiers in the Crimean war. In 1855 Mary Seacole established the British Hotel, a convalescent home for soldiers in the Crimean war. In 1887 we see the British Nursing Association created, and in 1919, the first professional register for nurses.

Much has changed since then, with nursing roles created to suit the demographic health needs of our changing society.

The role of ‘nurse’ comes in many guises. The nurse wearing a uniform in a hospital setting is often the image that comes to mind. However, nurses working in different settings will be connected to their training branch of paediatrics, general, learning disabilities and mental health. Something that is uniform, and aligns us, is our UK Code of Conduct: a set of principles that govern nursing practice in all settings, whether that be in hospitals, schools, home visits, police stations or prisons.

All nurses have a workplace, and it’s for this reason that we in Add|Wellbeing (a service that works with organisations to assess, design and deliver bespoke mental health support – employing a ‘whole system’ approach to offer in-depth insights and facilitate long-term cultural change) are talking about the profession of nursing. Being a nurse myself, it has shaped my professional career and I have shaped it.

The common thread that runs through the nursing profession is not just our duty of care towards service users, but our wish to offer compassion towards them. We recognise that there is no more vulnerable time than when a person or their loved one faces ill health. Of course, by virtue of some high profile incidents, we have heard horror stories of nursing care that has been utterly abusive, negligent and reckless. That cannot be glossed over. But we know that only the smallest proportion of nurses are involved in malpractice. It’s also important to emphasise and acknowledge nursing practice that falls short of our aspirations, and consider the systemic working issues that may have contributed to these cases. It’s vital that further investigation into wider organisational systems takes place in these situations.

The Nursing Code of Conduct requires nurses to work in a safe proactive manner, and take on only what they feel comfortable doing to ensure we are protecting the public. Of course this can be extremely difficult when the cultural demands and pressures of the workplace can result in burnout for the individual and team. Tragically, 226 nurses died by suicide in the first year of the pandemic as reported in the Nursing Times by the Laura Hyde foundation, a charity committed to ensuring all medical and emergency services personnel have access to the best mental health support network available. We know that suicide amongst health professionals is sadly not new, but this does raise the question of support and compassion amongst and within the profession itself, and organisations must do more to ensure nurses receive the support they need.

But it’s perhaps because of this term ‘compassion’ that the public and media hold nursing to a high standard and are more likely to expose falls from grace; and, individually as nurses, we are keen to uphold our own strong sense of identity, which means it can be hard to be seen as anything else in some cases.

It feels on this day, International Nurses Day, that we should show compassion towards the collective of nurses that begin their career as a group within the National Health workforce. We know what it means to both work as a team and autonomously as registered practitioners. The functions upheld by the nursing profession are shaped by the political landscape and successive governments as to how funding for training has been apportioned and where nursing is positioned.

The work of nurses may not always be seen and appreciated, but, as we know in practice, they do make an invaluable difference to our society and our workplaces. The experience that nurses have in knowing what it means to ‘be’ with patients, and having the courage to not shy away from the work, even when it’s hard, comes from our interest in human beings, and our wish to help and connect, combined with our knowledge of healthcare across the lifespan, from cradle to grave.