Making a difference: what it means to be an RCN rep

The college’s representatives play an essential part in ensuring members get a fair deal. A new book celebrating their contribution also reveals how rewarding the role is, personally and professionally.

The college’s representatives play an essential part in ensuring members get a fair deal. A new book celebrating their contribution also reveals how rewarding the role is, personally and professionally

Three years ago, mental health nurse Jeremy Davies felt burnt out and stuck in a rut. ‘I was a middle-aged man with no direction, counting pay days until retirement,’ he says.

Then a friend who was an RCN learning representative – a voluntary role supporting members with their career development – suggested he follow in her footsteps.

‘She saw it as an opportunity for me to try something different,’ says Mr Davies, who became an RCN learning representative in Wales in 2015. ‘And I could never have anticipated how positive, life-changing and life affirming it could be.’

Now Mr Davies is among almost two dozen RCN representatives from every region and across the UK who have shared their views and experiences in What We Give and What We Gain, The Value of Reps: In Our Own Words, published by the RCN in October.

RCN chief executive and general secretary Janet Davies says the book celebrates the contribution of RCN reps. ‘Often people don’t know what representatives do and the amount of responsibility they have,’ she says.

RCN learning representative and steward Jeremy Davies.

‘We want to celebrate them, highlighting those skills and talents that we don’t always appreciate. We hope it helps them to feel valued, and also inspires other members to become involved.’

‘The reps are the lifeblood of the RCN – the work that they do and the difference they make is worth its weight in gold’

Janet Davies

Based in workplaces throughout the UK, including the NHS and independent sector, the RCN’s more than 1,680 specially trained stewards and learning and safety representatives support members in a variety of ways. This includes protecting employees’ rights and ensuring fair treatment, promoting learning and ensuring staff work in a safe and healthy environment.

‘The reps are the lifeblood of the RCN,’ says Ms Davies. ‘The work that they do and the difference they make is worth its weight in gold. They are fundamental in achieving a fair deal, both for members and for patients.’

One section of the new book looks at the contribution reps make to members’ working lives, often supporting them in times of crisis, while another looks at how their lives have changed for the better since taking up their roles.


specially trained RCN stewards and learning and safety representatives support members in a variety of ways

The reps cite a wealth of benefits, such as improved confidence and self-esteem, friendships with like-minded colleagues, and pride in what they achieve for RCN members at work.

‘As part of becoming a representative you gain new skills, such as negotiating and working in partnership,’ says Ms Davies. ‘And it’s not just professional benefits, but personal too. I’ve seen people blossom as they’ve become confident in their role. It’s another string to their bow and quite often you’ll see them being promoted in their nursing role.’

Building relationships

Among those quoted in the book is Ali Upton, a safety rep in the South East, who says: ‘The training has helped me to sit back and listen much more and hear what people are saying, rather than simply voicing my own opinions. And that helps you build relationships. People both inside and outside work have seen a real change in me, with some saying I have a sense of calm about me now.’

For Mr Davies, facing an allegation of gross misconduct at work was another turning point. ‘I couldn’t talk about the specifics of my own case, but I decided I could use it as a way of demonstrating to my colleagues how the RCN supported me through it,’ he says.

‘I think people didn’t understand what the union could do, so I wanted to show how it represented them. I shared everything as it happened to me, putting it up on the noticeboard.’ His action led to a local surge in RCN membership, as staff saw at firsthand the support he received at first hand.

Helping others

Eventually his employers decided there was no case to answer, but Mr Davies was so grateful for the assistance he received that he decided he would volunteer to become a steward, in addition to his learning rep role. ‘I wanted to be able to help others who might find themselves in similarly distressing circumstances,’ he says.

Since becoming a steward this spring, Mr Davies has gone from strength to strength. ‘I feel I have a purpose, a sense of duty and commitment,’ he says. Among the new skills he’s developed is public speaking.

‘Three years ago, I wouldn’t have said boo to a goose. A few weeks ago, I spoke to 200 people, including the RCN president. My confidence has improved massively. I walk into a room wearing my RCN fleece and it’s like having a superhero outfit. You’re no longer Clark Kent, but the man who can solve the problem.’

‘Becoming an RCN rep has given me a voice’

Liz Jeremiah is an RCN steward in the South East of England

‘I’d had a very difficult time personally. I had very low levels of self-esteem and had been off sick several times with burnout, stress, anxiety and depression. I felt I needed to do something.

‘I became an RCN rep because I’d been on the receiving end of what I felt was poor care, and the help I got then from the RCN was very positive. It made me think how many others might appreciate getting support from someone who’d been in similar shoes.

RCN steward Liz Jeremiah.

‘Often people will say, “I know how you feel,” but in reality they don’t. If you can say to someone, “I’ve been there too and I know how hard it is,” then it’s very powerful.

‘Becoming a rep has brought me different skills that have had a positive impact on my self-esteem. Before I became a rep, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to stand up in front of a room full of people and talk, not in a million years, but now I can.

‘I set up a study day on the importance of self-care because I believed that as a profession we’d stopped looking after ourselves and each other, and that bothered me. I was delighted with how well the day went and have had messages since from people who attended, saying how different things are for them and how they’re making more time for themselves.

Empowered to question

‘I also feel able to challenge decisions, behaviours and practices that I think are unacceptable, without fearing recrimination. Before I would have accepted that things were just the way they were, but now I feel empowered to question.

‘People look at me now and see someone who has grown. I’ve had people say, “I want what you’ve got,” and I want to help them. What do I have that I didn’t before? It’s called a voice.

‘I feel I have found a purpose again, and that has had a knock-on effect for me personally and also in my clinical role. I feel reinvigorated.’

Lynne Pearce is a freelance journalist

Further information

What we give and what we gain, The Value of Reps: In Our Own Words



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