Nothing about us, without us

I wanted to start with the words of a colleague which I found incredibly powerful and profound: “I have lived experience of disability. I’m not differently abled, I am disabled by society’s lack of willingness to accommodate me”.

On Monday 18 January, I convened the first ever national disability staff network leads summit.

As Chief People Officer for the NHS, I have hosted a number of workforce events before and during the pandemic, listening to and being extremely moved by the insights, lived experiences and concerns of people from a broad range of roles and backgrounds. This has left me more committed than ever to continue to work alongside my colleagues to tackle some of the major issues. Hearing about some of the experiences of disabled colleagues – stories of exclusion, discrimination and frustration despite great commitment and care for the work they do – left me inspired and humbled. And of course, the ongoing impact of COVID-19 is only worsening the deep inequalities in our communities, our society and our own rich and diverse workforce.

The data we have on the experiences of colleagues with disabilities does not make for comfortable reading. The Workforce Disability Equality Standard (WDES) 2019 data report and the findings from a soon to be published survey of disabled staff about their experience and the impact of COVID-19 showed that disabled colleagues continue to experience inequalities in critical areas such as recruitment, career progression, and feeling valued. They are also more likely to experience harassment, bullying or abuse from patients, managers and other colleagues. This is unacceptable and must be addressed nationally, regionally and locally.

In the coming weeks, the 2020 annual WDES data report will be published. The findings will be our baseline on which to build a better, fairer and more inclusive NHS for those who are diversely abled.

In the coming weeks, I will be working with colleagues who have lived experience to set out the direction of travel for the disability equality agenda. Our plans will be underpinned by our shared values that everyone in the NHS is entitled to feel a sense of belonging, having a voice and being respected. Equality of opportunity and progression should be a given. When inequality or discrimination occurs, every single one of our NHS people is entitled to swift, decisive action to address it. This is a key pillar of the NHS people plan and is at the heart of the NHS constitution.

Staff networks play a vital role in providing a supportive space and a rich source of expertise. Our ambition, supported by the actions we will be taking this year, is for all NHS organisations to have a disabled staff network. The numbers of disabled staff networks across the NHS continue to grow – increasing from 63% in 2019 to 77% in 2020 – but I’d encourage employers to support this momentum by providing protected time for colleagues who are contributing their energy and commitment to developing disabled staff networks. Executive board support is a key ambition of network leads and I have taken this on as a long term commitment.

A key takeaway from the meeting for me was ‘Nothing about us, without us’ – a powerful reminder to me and to the wider NHS of the crucial importance of having disabled colleagues front and centre of our efforts to advance workplace disability equality. If in any doubt of your actions, apply the same kindness and compassion given to patients with disabilities, including the vital importance of reasonable adjustments and the need to recognise hidden disabilities.

If we are to retain the talents we have, and attract new and diverse talent, we need to do better, to be better. The NHS People Plan means all of our people, and the onus is on all of us to embody the changes we seek. We must all strive to be allies and support the change. Being better is not a nice to do, it is our legal duty and a statutory duty as employers.  And it is the only way we can make the NHS the best place to work.

Prerana Issar

Prerana Issar is the first NHS Chief People Officer. In joining the NHS, Prerana brings a wealth of expertise in leadership development and strategic talent management, as well as diversity and inclusion.

Prior to joining the NHS Prerana was Director for Public-Private Partnerships at the United Nations and prior to that she was the Chief Human Resources Officer for the World Food Programme. During this time leading the development of the United Nation’s first strategic human capital approach, as well as the reform of many key policies. Before the United Nations, Prerana worked for over 15 years at Unilever Plc, starting with them in India and then for several years was in global roles at Unilever’s headquarters in London. Her last role in Unilever was Vice-President HR for the Global Foods business.

Prerana gets her strong service ethos from her parents who were both in public service in the Government of India for close to 40 years. A proud mother to a teenage son and a younger daughter she says they keep her grounded with timely performance feedback on a variety of topics. One of the happiest days of her life was when her daughter was born at the Royal Free hospital in London, giving her first-hand experience of the NHS staff who every day deliver outstanding care to patients.