July 09, 2020

Despite nursing shortage, experienced applicants are ruled out

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Nurses are getting a rare moment of recognition during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the UK, care is chiefly carried out by women, both in the home and by profession. Whether it’s childcare, nursing, teaching, social work, or care of our elderly, women are in the majority – and are habitually underpaid for their work.

We know that women suffer greater employment setbacks than men do when they get a criminal record. Part of the reason is because the caring professions, mostly occupied by women, are the ones that require an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) criminal records check. This is true of nursing, where 9 out of 10 workers are women.

It is a symptom of a patriarchal society that women are so often expected to take up caring roles in the first place. The outdated perception that caring for others is a job for women is still strong, especially in nursing. This is used as an excuse to devalue nurses and is why the job is so poorly paid. Nurses earn 17% less than men in similar roles.

In the UK we are undergoing a huge shortage of nurses. Reports put the number of vacancies as high as 44,000 – 12% of the entire workforce – with many leaving because of unfavourable working conditions. Plus, a third are due to retire by 2026.

Tracey was one of the many nurses thinking of leaving the NHS because of mass defunding and a lack of support for its staff. Despite this, having been a nurse for 11 years, she wanted to continue her work in another setting. ‘I loved it. Nursing was my passion and still is,’ she says.

Tracey chose to become a nurse because she had always wanted to help people. She saw it as a career for life.

Unfortunately, following a break from the profession, Tracey went through an extremely difficult time in her life which resulted in her receiving a conviction. In an ironic twist, she ended up gravely ill in the same hospital where she used to work. When she had recovered and was ready to get back into the job she was so passionate about, she found that the conviction prevented it.

A criminal record is a financial disadvantage that continues long after a prison or community sentence is over. Discriminatory practices in employment mean that even after women have served their time, they are punished by being denied a return to their chosen profession.

Anyone applying for a job providing health or social care will have to undergo an enhanced and barring list check. In England and Wales this is carried out by the Disclosure and Barring Service, or DBS. This means that the employer will be able to view any cautions as well as spent and unspent convictions (unless they are protected). They will also see whether they are barred from working with children or vulnerable adults. It is an offence to employ someone on the relevant barred list.

Having a caution or conviction on your record won’t automatically exclude you from a job (in fact you can get a conditional offer of employment before the check takes place), but it makes it much harder. The employer is entitled to consider the caution or conviction in the decision to hire, but they should make a fair assessment, taking into account how relevant it is to the role, the circumstances and how long ago it occurred.

The problem is that employers may not seek out the circumstances surrounding the conviction; they may harbour prejudices, or be unaware of the issues that can lead women to end up with cautions or convictions. This means that a caution or conviction can unfairly disrupt a job offer even if it occurred a long time ago or is unrelated to the job.

Tracey received a knock-back like this a few years ago when, having been offered a nursing role, the offer was suddenly withdrawn. She knows it was because of her conviction, even though it isn’t relevant to nursing and she wasn’t barred from working with vulnerable adults or children. This, understandably, has impacted her self-esteem. ‘The fear is that most people are going to be discriminatory. And it’s showing in my confidence.’

Now she is applying to become a Nursing Assistant, looking to advance back to a full nursing position via a more junior role. While the position still requires an enhanced and barring check, employers may perceive less risk since the role is supervised. Tracey feels optimistic but anxious. She is looking forward to returning to hands-on care, but the salary is far lower than the full nursing position she is qualified for.

Claudine is also looking to get into nursing through an alternative route because of a conviction. Her experience caring for elderly people got her interested in the healthcare profession, and to get there she has sought out work in care homes.

But finding a role hasn’t been easy, even as the country scrambles to recruit more care workers during the pandemic. Despite her previous experience, Claudine has found it difficult to get past the DBS check, where employers often point-blank reject an application when they see a conviction rather than asking for more information or references.

Claudine knows her conviction doesn’t define her. ‘It was something that happened once… people change. What’s important is a desire to improve yourself and work on yourself.’

She suggests that the probation period could be a chance for professionals to provide a reference for a woman’s character, so that judgement isn’t made through DBS checks alone. Unfortunately, most women report that during probation they didn’t receive help with employment at all.

Having your career derailed by a criminal record is devastating. It can leave you with no relevant work experience, having to seek out new options and start from the bottom of the ladder.

It is a terrible shame every time a woman has to give up their profession because of a conviction, especially when their ambition is motivated by a desire to help people.

In fact, women with convictions often seek out work where they have the opportunity to help others, wanting to draw on their own experiences and give back. This trend may also arise because many women act as carers for each other while in prison.

A more understanding and equitable approach to hiring women with criminal records could help fill vacant nursing positions and strengthen our NHS.

Through her hard work, Claudine has now found a role carrying out live-in care. ‘Being a carer is a challenging role,’ she says.

For women with convictions, it’s harder than it should be.

Olivia Dehnavi, Policy and Research Officer at Working Chance