The impact of COVID-19 on BAME workers: Supporting vulnerable colleagues to Speak Up

The impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable colleagues is a speaking up matter.

Of the 203 NHS staff known to have died in the pandemic to date, 64 per cent were from a minority ethnic background. As 20 per cent of all NHS staff are from a minority ethnic background, this disproportionate toll is shocking. Recently, Sir Simon Stevens recommended that employers risk assess the working environment for vulnerable workers, including those who are Black, Asian and from Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

According to our Pulse survey of Freedom to Speak Up guardians, 38% of respondents cite matters being brought to them about assessment of workers at increased risk, with 22% specifically citing the impact of COVID-19 on BAME workers.

The NGO is working on joint communications with the Workforce Race Equality Standards (WRES) team at NHS E/I, including a letter to Chief Executives of Trusts and letters to membership bodies, to encourage their members to contact Freedom to Speak Up guardians if they feel unable to use other routes to speak up.

We are looking into ways that we can support guardians and WRES experts to work together and would like to encourage you to contact your WRES expert, or if your organisation doesn’t have one, to seek out WRES experts locally, so that you can support one another. Directories of WRES experts are available here and here

During last week’s webinar, how to best support BAME colleagues was one of the questions which guardians raised.

Several guardians shared some of the way they and their organisations have been seeking to engage with vulnerable groups to encourage them to speak up.

Alison Bell, Freedom to Speak Up Guardian at University Hospitals of Derby and Burton, which works across five hospitals, shared how the Executive Team have been holding bespoke video conference calls with groups of staff where an outline of the current picture is described before a more informal Q&A can begin.

“This is a very difficult time for many NHS staff, especially those in groups that have been identified as higher risk, so it is important that time and energy is placed in continued engagement with these colleagues,” she says.

“The Trust invited all BAME staff to join a call with the CEO, Chief Nurse and Director of People and OD. Following the success of this approach, the Trust contacted all 340 Filipino staff to organise a call for any specific concerns they may have. This was timely as we were able to pass on our condolences as the Trust sadly lost a colleague who was from the Philippines due to COVID-19. Follow-up calls to discuss latest developments and updates on actions identified are now being organised.

“This approach has now been expanded to the 400 colleagues who are currently shielding at home. These colleagues are currently benefiting from the Live Broadcasts the Trust is making to all staff, which are broad cast on Facebook, the intranet and MS Teams. Although these broadcasts do allow staff to type questions, the smaller bespoke additional sessions give staff the opportunity to not only ask questions and give their opinions, but build links with others who are in similar circumstances to themselves.”

Some guardians are reaching out to colleagues themselves, or with the diversity leads to raise awareness of the channels of speaking up. At South Central Ambulance Service, the Equality and Diversity Lead and Simon Holbrook, the Freedom to Speak Up Guardian worked together to contact BAME staff by phone to ensure that, where necessary staff had adequate PPE, were fully supported and to ask whether they and their families had any further requirements. Workers who needed support were then fast tracked to the Health and Wellbeing hub, and all of BAME staff had direct access to the contact managers should any further issues arise.

Linking in with the various networks within your organisation is also a great way to make sure you are visible to vulnerable groups. Sue Pike, Freedom to Speak Up Guardian at George Elliot and South Warwickshire Trust shared that she has built upon existing facilitated focus groups, where a few staff at a time had discussions linked to well-being and to behaviours and kindness.

“As we are now living in a virtual world I am planning to do some focus groups with staff using the same methodology but on Microsoft teams instead,” she says. “We have staff networks for people with disabilities and BAME workers and these have now switched to an online Teams space where we will be holding monthly meetings. I attend those and often pick up issues. I then arrange to meet virtually with the member of staff to discuss and signpost to help that is available within the trust and externally. We have used those forums to highlight specific issues such as our Trust’s new disability passport and policy, the BAME COVID-19 worries and the risk assessment that highlights issues around vulnerable staff, those who are pregnant, older workforce, long term conditions and ethnicity based on the risk reduction framework.”

Communication channels are being used in a creative way to reach more colleagues, especially if guardians are not able to be as physically visible as usual. Enlist the help of the communications team, if you have one, to help.

If you’d like to share ways that you have been dealing with the different challenges which you face as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, do get in touch so we might share with other guardians facing similar issues.

Further resources
The WRES team recently held a webinar on this subject

The National Guardian’s Office is also running our own webinar for Freedom to Speak Up guardians with Yvonne Coghill CBE Director of WRES on 18th June. Check your bulletin for details of how to register.

May 29, 2020