Is nursing a calling or a career choice?

The idea of nursing as a vocation is at odds with a professional image – and a salary to match

Nurse working in ICU in full PPE. Referring to nursing as a ‘calling’ fails to recognise it as a highly skilled profession
Does this look like a ‘calling’ or a highly skilled profession? Picture: Alamy

Just days after the government was labelled ‘dangerously out of touch’ with the nursing profession, one of its health ministers suggested nurses don’t need to worry about their pay because their husbands can pay the bills.

If the comments by health minister Nadine Dorries weren’t so infuriating and misguided, the irony of their timing following RCN general secretary Dame Donna Kinnair’s rebuke would be laughable.

Is this how the government really sees nurses?

Naturally, Ms Dorries’ remarks on BBC Woman’s Hour that nurses would accept a 1% pay rise if their partners’ furlough arrangements could continue, prompted an outpouring of anger from nurses on social media.

This is not the first time (and sadly is unlikely to be the last) that nurses have been compelled to counter a misrepresentation of their profession by their government.

In recent weeks, ministers – including the prime minster – have also waxed lyrical about how much they admire and owe to nurses, referencing family members in the profession to show how much they can relate. This is all while justifying a proposed pay cut – or a rise, as the government describes it.

There have also been comments from those in power about how nurses do their job ‘because they love it’. For most, this may well be true, but it’s unrelated to whether nurses should be paid a fair salary.

Does any nurse see their highly-skilled job as ‘a calling’, as others so often present it? Or rather, is it an active, considered choice to be part of a varied and vital profession? Put simply, would you do it for free (gainfully employed spouses aside, of course)?

The undermining effect of an outdated notion

Perpetuation of the idea that nursing is a vocation undermines and undervalues its professionalism. It’s also unhelpful when many experienced nurses are considering leaving and we need to retain them, as well as those just starting out.

We can all remember the ludicrous comment by health and social care secretary Matt Hancock in 2019 about how some nurses still stand up when doctors enter a room.

Instead, he and his government are now seeing nurses stand up for their profession.

Flavia Munn is editor of Nursing Standard