My job

The nurse leader who is determined to keep one foot on the front line of care

Emma Wadey’s new job has propelled her to the top of the NHS, but don’t ask her to give up clinical practice
head of mental health nursing for NHS England and NHS Improvement Emma Wadey

Emma Wadeys new job has propelled her to the top of the NHS, but dont ask her to give up clinical practice

The prospect of losing direct contact with patients or service users can put nurses off seeking promotion into senior management roles.

But Emma Wadey's career is proof it is possible to go far in management terms, while staying close to the front-line of clinical practice.

Combining policy-making with clinical practice

In January, she took up the new post of head of mental health nursing for NHS England and NHS Improvement . Its a national leadership role thats been in the making for some time,' she explains.

She does this while retaining

...

Emma Wadey’s new job has propelled her to the top of the NHS, but don’t ask her to give up clinical practice


Head of mental health nursing for NHS England and NHS Improvement Emma Wadey

The prospect of losing direct contact with patients or service users can put nurses off seeking promotion into senior management roles.

But Emma Wadey's career is proof it is possible to go far in management terms, while staying close to the front-line of clinical practice.

Combining policy-making with clinical practice

In January, she took up the new post of head of mental health nursing for NHS England and NHS Improvement. ‘It’s a national leadership role that’s been in the making for some time,' she explains.

She does this while retaining a role as consultant nurse in a psychiatric liaison team for one day every couple of weeks.

‘I’m very keen that my clinical practice continues and I’m fortunate that has been supported,’ says Ms Wadey. ‘For me, it makes you more credible to be able to speak on behalf of other nurses if you’re still nursing yourself. Seeing patients is the bit I’ve always loved most and I’m not ready to give that up.’

‘I’ve always been attracted to those patients who are the most complex and stigmatised – those who have no one to believe in them’

Her nursing career could easily have veered in a different direction.

‘As a student, I didn’t know anything about mental health nursing,’ she says. ‘But it just so happened that my first placement was on a mental health ward. As soon as I stepped into the ward, I just loved it. I didn’t want to do anything else. It captured me and it’s never really left.’

Mental health nurse leadership at a national level

As the inaugural holder of her new post, she admits it’s a challenge.

‘All the branches of nursing need to be represented, with the uniqueness they bring. This is about valuing the role of mental health nurses, improving their visibility and showcasing their expertise.

‘It’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure,’ she says. ‘It’s important the voice of mental health nursing is there in key meetings and decision-making. Without this role, it could be perceived that it’s forgotten or absent.’

A pioneer in community mental health

After qualifying as a mental health nurse in 1999 at the University of Surrey, Ms Wadey became the first-ever newly qualified community psychiatric nurse with Crawley community mental health team. ‘It was the first time that had happened, as usually you would go straight to a ward,’ she recalls. 

Initially, she wanted to work at Broadmoor Hospital and had secured a post there, but family circumstances led her to choose a job in the community. ‘It was an itch I hadn’t scratched,’ she says. After a few years at the prison service, in 2008 she finally got to work at the high security psychiatric hospital as a consultant nurse in personality disorder.

Different ways of addressing mental health issues have been a feature of her nursing, including introducing acupuncture and herbal tea to reduce insomnia for male remand prisoners. ‘It’s thinking outside the box,’ says Ms Wadey.

‘Men in prison aren’t always able to engage with talking therapies and may not be able to articulate their distress in words. It’s really important to look at other mediums to be able to get through to them, building those relationships in what can be a harsh and difficult setting.’


Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire  Picture: Alamy

Nurses as advocates for patients and service users

She particularly enjoys supporting some of society’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable people. ‘In the Code we talk about being the patient’s advocate,’ she says. ‘There’s something about people in a mental health ward not having a voice and being lost. As a nurse, you’re alongside and can empower them.

‘I’ve always been attracted to those patients who are the most complex and stigmatised – those who have no one to believe in them. I’m also interested in people’s stories and have that professional curiosity.’

‘I want to shine a light on the profession and support those around me to step forward’

Sometimes the smallest actions can make a difference, she believes. ‘In prison, you can’t release people or give them the family back they’ve lost. But you can treat them with compassion, be respectful and show what it’s like to have someone not judge them,’ says Ms Wadey.

Her first management position was at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, where she was appointed deputy director of nursing in 2013. After three years at the trust she undertook a year’s secondment as chief nurse for South East Coast Ambulance Service, returning to Sussex Partnership in 2017. The following year she was appointed deputy director of nursing at Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust.

Throughout her management career Ms Wadey has kept up her hands-on clinical practice and it is to Southern Health that she returns to fulfil her consultant nurse role.


Mental health nursing presents rich career opportunities, says Emma Wadey  Picture: iStock

Mental health nursing offers so many opportunities, and now more than ever

In the past, mental health nursing has suffered from a poor image, Ms Wadey believes. ‘We always felt we were the last and it was seen as the place you went if you weren’t quite good enough to be a “proper” nurse,’ she says. ‘It was a Cinderella service, with a stigma. Mental health was seen as shameful, so working in it wasn’t talked about.’

But with 2020 being the first-ever global Year of the Nurse and Midwife, and with extra investment in mental health services, there is the potential for a raft of new opportunities.

‘It’s really important people get to see the breadth of roles and the contribution that mental health nurses can bring,’ says Ms Wadey. ‘I want to shine a light on the profession and support those around me to step forward.

‘There are fantastically skilled mental health nurses out there – and we need to make sure they are heard.’  


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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