Michelle Healy is a data integrity officer at West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust. In this blog, Michelle reflects on the importance of staff networks and the support they provide, finding common ground with others and improving the workplace for all.
What do you think about when you hear the word 'network'? In the past I probably would have just thought of our computer network, thanks to my role within the IT department where I ensure the data quality of our patient records. But when I saw a disability awareness stand outside our trust restaurant I had to stop. I have the genetic condition Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder that causes pain and fragility in the joints, organs and skin. Frequent joint dislocations and easy bruising are common. It also causes me to experience chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and even led to me having a corneal transplant in 2012. So I couldn’t ignore the stand promoting a new staff disability support network.
Over my 12 years in the NHS I have, of course, encountered others with disabilities, but I’d never been part of a coordinated group. As an organisation, the NHS is naturally based on the medical model - that is, that the default state of being is the absence of disease or disability and seeking to fix impairments. Much of society still looks at disability this way and the past year has highlighted how much the number of people with disabilities in employment is vastly underestimated.
About 18 per cent of working age adults having a disability and there are more than 4.4 million disabled people in some form of work in the UK as of April 2021. This of course means that the NHS, the largest employer in the UK, has a significant number of staff with disabilities. Sometimes impairments just can’t be fixed and instead of looking at removing disabilities, we should be looking at how we can support disabled people and remove the barriers they face every day (aka the social model of disability). This is where staff networks play a huge role.
Before joining our network, Diversability, I had met others with disabilities at West Herts, but everyone always felt spread out, connections were isolated and you felt ultimately powerless to effect any kind of change for the better. Our meetings, led by our staff disability champion and our equality and diversity lead, are a safe space where we can share the issues we face and can draw on support from others who may have been through similar, such as when facing redeployment, or we can work together to find ways to improve situations.
One area where many of us struggle is with parking. Adequate disabled parking for staff has always been an important issue to me, and we have now set up a task and finish group to improve this for our staff with blue badges, which I am chairing. The network also helps in other ways: when I wasn’t medically able to have the particular COVID-19 vaccine our trust was administering, network connections meant I was able to arrange to have my vaccines at another local trust.
I am also a staff wellbeing champion and a member of our carers’ support network (I have a teenager with autism and ADHD). During this past year the support these groups have provided has been invaluable for me and many others who have found themselves in incredibly trying times. As a wellbeing champion I have been able to provide a listening ear for colleagues needing support and signpost them to appropriate organisations. Our carer’s support network has introduced our Carer’s Passport, an official document aimed specifically at helping managers to identify the adjustments and support requirements that our staff carers need in order for them to achieve a balance between their jobs and caring responsibilities.
Using MS Teams with video throughout the pandemic has worked well for us all, as it allows us to see each other. This is important for things such as lipreading - but it’s also just nice to see other people, especially if like me you have also been shielding. Despite not physically meeting, we have all felt that we have worked harder than ever in our roles and to effect change. The pandemic has shown we can come together and keep services running in completely new and innovative ways.
Quality of life has improved
People I’ve spoken to - those with a disability or long-term condition, fellow carers and other colleagues have felt that although we are working hard, our quality of life has also improved thanks to blended working arrangements. Perhaps, most importantly, more people have felt empowered to say this to their managers, our trust board and even our chief executive. This is the kind of strength that is found when people are encouraged to come together and feel they are supported and being listened to. When voices are numerous and loud enough, then change starts happening, and it is known that when we make changes and improve things for minority groups, positive change begins happening on all levels.
The last year has taught so many of us, including me, to never save anything for best and to always live in the moment. This is why one of my favourite quotes, from Anne Frank, resonates with me now more than ever, “How wonderful it is that no one need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”