Career advice

Faith, spirituality and offence: why it’s important to avoid making assumptions

Exercise caution and show respect if you are going to express your personal beliefs

Exercise caution and show respect if you are going to express your personal beliefs


Picture: iStock

Many years ago, I spent a summer working as a chambermaid on one of the Western Isles of Scotland. It wasn’t an easy job – the owners were incredibly strict and set high standards – but at least I got to perfect my ‘hospital corners’, long before I set foot in nursing college.

One of the other advantages was that local customs were dictated by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. This meant that no housework was allowed on the sabbath, which was great for me.

Looking back, I was simply delighted to have Sundays off. I was also young and slightly naïve, so accepted what I was told. No way was I going to jeopardise my day off by saying I wasn’t a believer in the Free Church, nor did I put any thought into what it must have been like to live on the island as a non-believer.

Increased awareness of diversity

I haven’t been back to the Western Isles for some time so don’t know whether customs have changed, but we now live in a far more diverse society in general, with greater awareness of differing faiths and beliefs.

Even so, religion and spirituality can be emotive subjects, with assumptions and generalisations too easily made. Choosing where and when to express your personal beliefs isn’t always easy, and if you are a nurse of faith you may find yourself wondering what you can and cannot say about your beliefs at work.

This can be a lonely feeling, especially if there aren’t many other nurses of your faith in your clinical area. There have been several high-profile cases where the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) has ruled that nurses have over stepped their professional boundaries when discussing religious beliefs or practices with patients.

The NMC Code says nurses and midwives must ‘not express personal beliefs (including political, religious or moral beliefs) to people in an inappropriate way.’

Casual expressions can offend

Although this may seem obvious, we all have different interpretations of what is ‘appropriate’. Some nurses, for example, may think nothing of saying ‘god bless you’ to colleagues or patients. They may have the best intentions but someone could easily take offence.

Similarly, phrases such as ‘oh my god’ could offend others. This can be a very fine line, so it is important to recognise if you are at risk of crossing it.

Increased awareness can help to lessen judgements and assumptions, but you will never be able to control what others think or say. You may feel safe to share your views with close colleagues, but how comfortable would you feel doing so with a wider group?

If you mention that you attend church every week, for example, are you worried others may judge you?

When you don't celebrate Christmas…

Christmas will soon be upon us, but if your faith doesn’t celebrate Christmas, how do you respond to patients who ask about your plans for the ‘big day’. Being honest might shock them but lying is likely to go against your morals.

Unfortunately, there is no set of guidance that covers all eventualities, so here are some useful pointers:

  • If you want to discuss your religious or spiritual views, consider whether the timing and context is right, and the possible effect this could have on others. Empathy doesn’t just apply to patient care; stopping to think of how someone else may feel or react can help you rephrase things in a more considered way.
  • If you feel too uncomfortable with a question from a colleague or patient it is okay to give a vague answer, such as ‘I’ll be with my family’ in response to what you are doing on Christmas Day. 
  • If you find yourself in a situation where you have offended someone, or you feel offended by something that’s been said, try not to focus on the religious aspect as this could lead to a potentially heated dialogue. Instead, treat it in the same way you would with any workplace conflict. Apologise for any upset if necessary and take some time to reflect on what you have learned from the situation.

Equal validity

Being sensitive about expressing your views does not mean these are any less important or valid. Likewise, if some of your colleagues have differing beliefs, this does not mean they can impose their views on you. 

You have every right to have your faith acknowledged at work, and most trusts will adapt working conditions where possible, such as giving you time for praying and making different dietary options available in the canteen.

Thousands of nurses across the UK successfully balance their faiths with their professional lives, the key is to do it in a respectful and dignified way.


Mandy Day-Calder is a life/health coach 

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