Pride and embarrassment

Introduction Text:
You know what? I really love the NHS, not just a bit, but deeply and inextricably.  It is incredibly important to me. The NHS and I have been together a long time. It’s a relationship that has been an integral and special part of my life for the last 36 years and has helped shape me into the person I am today.

YvonneI met my husband whilst we both worked in the NHS (he was a post graduate student nurse when we met at St Bernard’s hospital), I had my children in an NHS hospital, all my best friends have worked in the NHS and of course I still work in the NHS. Like all relationships, there are moments when you feel intense joy, happiness and pride in the relationship and then there are other times when there are feelings of anger, disappointment and sometimes embarrassment. Over the last couple of weeks, my feelings about my beloved NHS have been on a roller coaster ride.  I’ve experienced intense highs and dreadful lows about the service in the space of a few weeks.


A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated 65 years of the health service. It’s hard for me to believe that when I started my nurse training at Central Middlesex hospital in 1977, the NHS was only 29 years old. We rightly celebrated the fact that the NHS is free at the point of need and in fact, still here, despite everything!  The first paragraph of the NHS constitution succinctly and clearly highlights what the NHS is about.

The NHS belongs to the people.

It is there to improve our health and wellbeing, supporting us to keep mentally and physically well, to get better when we are ill and, when we cannot fully recover, to stay as well as we can to the end of our lives. It works at the limits of science – bringing the highest levels of human knowledge and skill to save lives and improve health.

It touches our lives at times of basic human need, when care and compassion are what matter most.

I have always felt and still feel proud and privileged to be part of such a wonderful institution. What we do and what we achieve for our patients every day is truly marvellous.


With this in mind, I wear my Proud of the NHS badge with pride. People on the underground will sometimes smile at me or even ask me if I’m a nurse (I must look like one!) which is a consequence of catching sight of the pin. The interactions I have had with members of the public have always been positive. This is why it was a surprise to me that I felt the need to take my pin off and surreptitiously hide it in my handbag whilst travelling into London last week.  I was on my way to Victoria on the train, and as usual fellow commuters were reading the Metro and other daily papers. I was sitting next to a gentleman who was shifting around in his seat. He was agitated, tutting and muttering under his breath. Anyone that is a seasoned underground train traveller would, as I usually do, ignore such behaviour but he caught my attention by muttering the word “disgusting”.

My curiosity was aroused and I glanced down to see what he was reading. He was reading an article that stated how much more money needed to be saved in the NHS, something like £30 billion. The NHS England CEO was saying that difficult decisions would have to be made. No issue yet. He then flipped the paper to the page that was clearly causing him the agitation. In bold letters, was a full page spread on the redundancy packages many senior leaders in the service had received. The train we were on came out of the tunnel and he promptly made a call to someone, telling them about both articles he used quite strong language to describe his feelings about NHS managers.  It was a sobering moment for me and made me realise the power of, and the impact of, the press and media on the population and ultimately our health service. By printing the two stories side by side, it made NHS managers look incompetent at best, and greedy and grasping at worst.

I so wanted to defend the NHS, my colleagues and friends, to explain to the gentleman that most people that had worked in the service and left recently did not receive million pound packages, and that all things being equal, most people would have chosen to stay and give 110% to make our NHS one of the best health services in the world. I suspect he wouldn’t have believed me anyway. In any case, what stood out for me are the feelings and emotions that are demonstrated by people about the NHS. Danny Boyle tapped into the nations love of the service at last year’s Olympics. On the train, I witnessed rage and anger when someone felt the NHS was not doing its best for him or his family – sobering, really sobering.

I suspect most people reading this love the NHS as much as I do. I am also guessing that people have been on the same roller coaster ride that I’ve been on over the last few weeks. I bet you’ve felt proud of the service and the work we do but no doubt totally frustrated, embarrassed and irritated by the negative press and media reporting that seems determined to undermine our work.

A question for us all; how do we stay in the pride and passion zone? What’s the antidote for the negativity that has been surrounding us lately? And finally, how do we as the NHS people, get the country to feel the same pride in us that they felt exactly 1 year ago at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

2 replies on “Pride and embarrassment”

  • This is always going to be a tough one because there will always be things that embarrass or even shame us as NHS workers, just as there is reasonable certainty there will always be things to be proud of. But in some ways, experiencing both of those kinds of emotion is about doing just what you ask….staying in the pride and passion zone. What I mean is that it’s our attachment to the NHS….the emotion we have for it….that means we will always be touched by its successes and its failures. Feeling embarrassed when it fails is good….it proves we still have “skin in the game” of working day in and day out to make it better. The challenge we face is how to channel that attachment into the energy to improve rather than into seeking only the warm glow that might come from success but could also come from complacency. But one thing is sure….if we stop either being proud or being embarrassed by what we collectively achieve in the NHS, we will have lost something important, vital even. Perhaps one way to sustain our attachment is to learn how to mindfully meet both those emotions head on, understand what triggers them without beating ourselves up or putting up our feet, and commit to using the energy of success to address the causes of failure.
    How do we get the country to feel pride in us? We need to deliver the care and compassion they want from our “core business” while modelling the emotional intelligence and wisdom that reflecting on that business could help us develop. We need to become not just workers in a complex system but articulate advocates for what that complexity means….and how, if we are constantly striving for excellence, as night follows day, there will always also be things that embarrass us (even if a decade ago they did not) and that need more work. It all goes with the territory. Thanks for starting the discussion.

    Tony Berendt
  • I love the story.

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