by | Mar 17, 2021

Thinking about nursing activists

Over the past few years, we have all seen the power of activism to bring important issues to the forefront of public attention from climate change and racism to sexual exploitation and child food poverty.

Working at the Royal College of Nursing – a professional body and trade union for over 450,000 members working in nursing – the question of what we could achieve with the power of our members is something that has always interested me.  Nursing staff are at the cutting edge of the real-life impact of policy and political decisions, seeing at first-hand the impact of every social and economic change on all sections of the wider population.

In addition, since first appearing in the index of most trusted professions in the UK in 2016, nurses have topped the poll each year, with 93% of respondents in 2020 putting them at the top of their most-trusted list (Ipsos Mori, 2020).

So, I have always been aware of the potential of what our members could achieve if we supported them to step into their activism as a powerful and compelling collective voice for positive change.

However, we know that the overwhelming majority of our members join the RCN – and remain in membership – as a transactional decision, based on material motivations around workplace protection and advice (Research by Design, 2019). Like many trade unions we have focused on a value proposition that stresses our ‘offer’ to joiners, centred around the services that they will have access to as members.

This means that when members join the RCN the majority do not do so on the basis of shared values and beliefs, or with an expectation of being active and involved members of the organisation.

This increasingly feels like a missed opportunity both in terms of what the members could achieve collectively if unified behind a shared intention that speaks to their value base, and in terms of their individual potential to develop their own sense of agency.

On my sabbatical with the Sheila McKechnie Foundation over the past six weeks I have been considering this untapped potential for our members to develop their voice of agency. Much of my thinking has resulted in my identification of a need for us to co-develop a values proposition with our members – a clear and unapologetic statement of what we stand for as a collective. Finding out what sits at the heart of what our members believe to be really important feels like an important first step (Rose, 2013).

Members of the public might feel that they know what nurses stand for and what they represent. There is a big cultural and commercial investment in the ‘goodness’ of nurses. We are all familiar with the ‘angels’ and ‘heroes’ tropes that speak to this image. These messages conceal and sometimes even denigrate nurses’ clinical knowledge and skilled practice.

Many of the messages that originate with nurses, or that are put forward on their behalf, focus more on who nurses are or how they feel about their work rather than on what they do and how it relates to crucial healthcare concerns like patient outcomes, safety, suffering or costs (Buresh and Gordon, 2013).

My challenge, going back after my sabbatical, is to prompt conversations within the organisation about how we develop a values proposition that will mobilise and engage our members to dare to advocate for their profession, and for fairer and safer health and social care systems that enable them to provide the very best nursing care.


Buresh, Bernice & Gordon, Suzanne. From Silence to Voice: What Nurses Know and Must Communicate to the Public. ILR Press, 2013

Rose, Chris. What Makes People Tick: The Three Hidden Worlds of Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers. Matador, 2013

Mairead O'Siochru

Mairead works at the Royal College of Nursing in the Employment Relations Department. She is responsible for the quality of the RCN's learning offer for its trade union representatives. She also supports RCN work on campaigns and has a special interest in working with members to enable them to use their voice to achieve positive change.



Sign up and get our newsletter

To be part of a more powerful civil society, sign up for news, upcoming events, training and consultancy.   

We will always respect your privacy. Read our Privacy Policy or click here to unsubscribe