Mentoring scheme supports nurses to develop ideas that make a difference

RCN's Celebrating Nursing Practice project has attracted entrants from across the UK and at all career stages

RCN's Celebrating Nursing Practice programme has attracted entrants from across the UK and at all career stages, from students to specialists

Picture: Daniel Mitchell

Telling everyone about their achievements does not come naturally to many nurses, but a new RCN project is helping to shine a light on their good ideas and develop them.  

‘A lot of work happens that staff just think of as part of their everyday practice,' says the college's deputy director of nursing Stephanie Aiken. 'But they are actually innovating and they don’t realise it.’  

The RCN's Celebrating Nursing Practice project aims to highlight these unsung achievements. It was established as part of the college’s centenary celebrations, with funding of £130,000 from the RCN Foundation, a charity providing vital support to the nursing community.


As well as sharing nursing practice that too often flies under the radar, the project hopes to develop a library of good practice. ‘We want nurses to find their voice and showcase what they’re doing,’ says Dr Aiken.

RCN fellow Jane Denton, a member of the project's steering committee, agrees. ‘So often there are wonderful things going on, but it doesn’t occur to the person that they’ve done something significant in terms of change,’ she says. ‘It’s a big part of the challenge. We want them to feel confident about what they’ve achieved.’

A key feature was a lack of restrictions on what could be submitted. ‘That’s what is exciting about it,’ says Ms Denton. ‘We deliberately didn’t put any constraints on the project, so we have very different things that are being developed and it’s really very broad.' She adds that some of the entrants are at an early stage in their projects and submitted 'ideas to make change happen,' while others 'have already done something small-scale and local – but believe it could be applied more widely'.

Pairing each entrant with a mentor is another critical aspect, with several RCN fellows volunteering their expertise. ‘This is the sort of role that is ideal for the RCN’s fellows to become involved with,’ says Ms Denton. ‘As a group, we have generic skills that are very useful for supporting nursing staff, helping them to develop their careers, their leadership and their abilities to change practice for the better.’

‘There are many concerns about staffing levels and continuing pressures, but this shows there are excellent nurses doing wonderful things that just aren’t recognised. We want to tap into this much more’

Jane Denton

Other mentors included members of the RCN’s staff, academics, and clinical staff. At the project’s inception, mentors were invited to attend a workshop and are expected to have regular contact with those leading the projects, offering them help to articulate what they are trying to achieve and providing encouragement.

During the project’s first phase, over a six-month period, participants worked on their own idea, with the support of a mentor, eventually submitting their report. This detailed how their project was developing, outlined the issue it was addressing and explicitly linked it to the local, regional or national nursing and patient care context. Examples will be published and available to a wider audience later this year. The work will also feature as part of the RCN’s annual congress in May – taking place on 12-16 May in Belfast – and through the RCN’s Library and Heritage Centre. 

Nurses at all career stages

Of more than 80 people who came forward with ideas, nearly half have made submissions. ‘The diversity of the entrants was great,’ says Dr Aiken. Representing the whole of the UK, the four fields of nursing, and staff at all stages of their careers – from student nurses to specialists – projects are from a range of healthcare settings. These include acute hospitals, the community, care homes and general practice. ‘It’s the whole life cycle, from neonatal to end-of-life care – exactly what we’d hoped for,’ says Dr Aiken. 

Now in the second phase, a small number of projects is being selected for presentation to a specially convened panel, with two or three to be chosen to receive extra funding and support to develop their work over the coming year. ‘We’re looking for something that demonstrates the potential to offer benefits wider than a local context,’ explains Dr Aiken. ‘It doesn’t necessarily have to be national, but the principles need to lend themselves to being transferable to similar settings elsewhere or used in ways to inform best practice.’

To give them the skills to demonstrate the cost benefits of their ideas and develop their business case, the two or three finalists will be offered places on the RCN’s own ‘Building nursing capability in economic assessment’ module. This helps nurses show the value of nurse-led innovation in practice.

‘It’s an ambitious project and I think we’re really pleased with the examples we have,’ says Ms Denton. ‘We need to think about how we continue to nurture nurses and this is a first step towards how we do more of that in the future.

'There’s a big public message too. We know there are many concerns about staffing levels and continuing pressures within the NHS, but this shows there are excellent nurses doing wonderful things that just aren’t recognised. It’s happening in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases – and as a professional body for nurses, we want to tap into this much more.’

The mentor

Among those who volunteered to become a mentor was RCN staff member, Rachel Wood, ‘I wanted to become a mentor because I enjoy having contact with RCN members and I’m very keen to promote professional nursing leadership and innovation,’ says Ms Wood, who was a learning and development facilitator, before she was seconded to the nursing team, where she facilitates professional learning and development.   

She mentored two people in Leeds, who were working primarily with immigrants who needed an initial health assessment. They began attending a local conversation group, designed to help people find their feet in a new community. ‘While they were there, they were approached by a group of women, who felt it was very difficult for them to speak out about personal health issues while there were men present,’ explains Ms Wood, whose nursing background is in critical care.

To help meet the women’s needs, the pair developed a new group where they felt safe to talk. ‘It was an excellent example of systems leadership because they were working in partnership with other third sector organisations and their local authority,’ says Ms Wood.

‘It was exactly the sort of thing I’d hoped to become involved with, and I’m continuing to support and encourage them. It’s a mutually beneficial working relationship, as I can reference them in my own work, as interesting case studies.’

As their mentor, she helped them create a framework to underpin their work, recommending templates to order their thinking, while signposting them to useful core documents and RCN experts who could help them.

‘I wanted them to understand the tremendous innovation they were showing,’ says Ms Wood. ‘They are wonderful examples of professional leadership and I found them inspiring and encouraging. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, it’s good to see that nurses are still making such an incredible difference.’

The participant

Surgical care practitioner Sara Dalby has welcomed the chance to take a project she had introduced locally and look at how it might be adopted nationally.   

‘It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to take an initiative that you’ve done on a small scale and make it that little bit larger, influencing in a positive way,’ says Ms Dalby, who works at Aintree University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in Liverpool.

One of two projects she is submitting, the Shining Star scheme, acknowledges the positive behaviours that staff exhibit, which help them stand out to their patients and colleagues. The idea came after Ms Dalby won a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust scholarship, visiting several hospitals in the United States that ran similar initiatives.

After returning home she developed the scheme, which links directly to the trust’s values, raising everyone’s awareness of them. A simple form enables patients, and sometimes other staff members, to tick a box when they witness staff demonstrating positive behaviours. There is also a place to add comments, with staff able to use any feedback they receive as evidence to support their revalidation and personal development portfolios. A trophy is awarded monthly to the department that has gained the most stars.

‘The emphasis is on valuing staff and integrating that into organisational behaviours and attitudes,’ explains Ms Dalby. ‘It’s worked well in my organisation, so I thought it would be good if we could roll it out further, but I wasn’t really sure how to go about it.’

Her second project is looking at building an online tool to help clinicians and managers understand which roles are best at carrying out certain tasks, and what is needed professionally.

Both projects linked her with a mentor, who has proved invaluable. ‘She gave me advice on the next steps, signposting me to who I should speak to and coming up with suggestions that perhaps I wouldn’t have thought about,’ says Ms Dalby.

‘Sometimes it helps to bounce ideas off other people and it can be really good to do that with those outside your own organisation, as they have fresh eyes. It’s been a fantastic experience.’

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Lynne Pearce is a freelance health journalist

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