Secretarial: Nursing the profession

I Work For...; Glenn Gathercole is PA to Christine Hancock, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing
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Keeping up with Christine Hancock is one of the most exhausting jobs imaginable. Her day is so full that she has three PAs, plus a diary administrator. Her responsibilities go far wider than a normal chief executive for not only is she a powerful female figurehead in a very male- dominated health industry but she is also a key decision-maker who is heavily involved in every level of nursing from the grass roots upwards. Her role requires her to be multi-faceted and hands on, spending time with our 315,000 members and proving to them why they pay her to be their representative. As a nurse herself, she's passionate about nursing; her primary concern is to champion the cause of all nurses.

The prospect of working in a role traditionally filled by a woman, for a strong-minded female leader, within both an organisation and a profession that are predominantly female oriented, offered a challenge I couldn't resist.

People often assume that being a PA to the general secretary means working in a typing pool, so it's really quite fulfilling to be able to bust these stereotypes. I enjoy explaining that once you work at chief executive level, the traditional role of a PA goes out of the window. I have to be fully genned up on everything that passes through Christine's hands. I also need to be completely up to date with information technology systems and how to implement them, as well as be fully familiar with all issues affecting nursing, including politics and working conditions.

When the telephone rings, it could be anyone - a minister, another politician, one of the royal palaces, a peer or baroness, any one of our many members or even a retired nurse with a strong opinion about uniforms. I also have to be careful to toe the party line rather than voicing my own opinions.

However, outside work my job is a good conversation piece, particularly when I can put someone's hospital experience into perspective by explaining what nurses have to cope with behind the scenes.

Nursing occupies 99 per cent of Christine's time and about 75 per cent of mine. Self-worth has to come from within, because you are working for the benefit of nurses rather than for yourself, and there are no huge bonuses at the end of the day. Luckily, I've always liked the idea of contributing to a public organisation that affects everyone's lifestyle.

I've been here eight years, having come from the travel industry to administrate transport and accommodation at the Royal College of Nursing. I certainly never thought that I would get so close to the top policy- making processes, and it's been a real eye-opener to see how decisions are reached, particularly at government level.

Nursing is vocational, but these days many would-be nurses are turning their backs on the profession because there's so little support for them. Many existing nurses suffer from low self-esteem because it doesn't seem as though people care about them. Many jobs are better paid than nursing; for example, in order for newly qualified nurses to reach the same level of pay as teachers at the beginning of their careers, their salaries would have to rise a full 17 per cent. Our efforts are focused on lobbying for better pay, which if achieved should help attract more people into nursing.

We are funded by our membership and by comparison to the nurses we represent we are adequately paid, but I think that the nurses realise that they need a good body of people to fight their battles for them.

In the past, nurses were never seen to have a personal identity, because hospitals were doctor-oriented; but now it's recognised that many nurses have their own fields of expertise and should be treated with respect.

Morale is generally quite low in nursing because of nurse shortages. But although there is a rising minority of people encountering problems because of the lack of hospital staff, I still have faith in nursing and health care in Britain. I would much rather be ill here than in a country such as America.

Interview by Katie Sampson