Top flight associates in mental health and social care delivering service improvement



Protecting equality in a time of crisis

By Hári Sewell and Dr Karen Linde

Posted: Thursday April 16 2020

Crises such as the global coronavirus pandemic provide opportunities for leading equality in a positive and proactive way.  This blog by Hári Sewell and Karen Linde offers some pointers that leaders may wish to take on board.


Protecting equality at a time of crisis

By Hári Sewell, Director of HS Consultancy and Dr Karen Linde, Independent Consultant.  Both are Associates at the Centre for Citizen and Community.


16th April 2020


Crisis are often times when strength and resilience shine through. Rules and processes that need to be adhered to during stable times are sidestepped or amended to enable timely responsiveness.  We have seen in the response to the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic that fiscal management rules, freedom of movement and even civil liberty protections under the Mental Health Act have been amended.


One unintended consequence of ‘decisive action’ is that the rules and procedures that were established to ameliorate the effects of bias also fall by the wayside.  Instructional leadership styles that have a place in a crisis, with all limitations exposed in critical literature and theories, potentially re-emerge as the gold standard.


Biases might arise from what has, perhaps unconsciously, been internalised as norms. A social group or sex may more frequently be ushered into a type of role or position.  For example, in thinking of who could rapidly step into a role leading on your organisation’s coronavirus response it is possible that in searching for ‘right skills’ you unconsciously also include an assessment of ‘best fit’, a concept that by definition is an expression of bias (for further information on the examination of the ‘best fit’ concept see NHS England’s ‘A Case for Diverse Boards’.  In the Covid-19 pandemic, the top team of the rapidly erected Nightingale Hospital in London were all white.  Roger Klein, author of ‘The Snowy White Peaks of the NHS’ (a white man, for the record) made the point on Twitter that this top team was not reflective of the senior NHS workforce in London. Many replies stated that the priority was to have the right team, or that the top team having ‘inclusive values’ was most important. 


We are not second guessing the process nor the appropriateness of the appointments but we are merely illustrating something we address in point 2 below. 


There are 6 possible aspects of equality where you can show inclusive leadership in a crisis:


1.     Crises are opportunities to highlight strengths and challenge dominant narratives

Start by thinking of opportunities that arise in a crisis. An act of leadership, at whichever level you work, is to openly discuss examples of things that challenge dominant ideas.  For example, in the NHS during the Covid-19 response when staffing is an absolute premium, the value of Black and brown people really comes to the fore.  This is particularly relevant in the context of the well-documented hostility that these staff often face, accentuated by the Brexit vote.  Find a nuanced way to give attention to this.


2.     Be alert to potential bias in selection processes for roles in a crisis 

Think of the undocumented (conscious or unconscious) criteria that are informing your decision-making.

Consider which roles in the system need to be urgently filled and those which can be delayed for a more robust process. For example, a back-filling role may be able to wait for a couple of weeks before being formally filled .

Remember, actions that appear consistent with an existing narrative (for example “BAME staff don’t get offered opportunities”) will still attract a critique even though it is a crisis.  A crisis does not render any other concerns irrelevant.


3.     Anticipate and respond to uneven impacts

Keep data on where impacts are uneven across social groups or sexes even if the impacts are secondary.  For example, if nursing staff in your service are disproportionately women and are consequently disproportionately affected by illnesses (currently Covid-19) or stressed through juggling child care responsibilities this should be spoken about openly.  If self-isolation is being done proportionately more frequently by one or more social groups hold forums to understand, with caring curiosity.  Though mass data on racial differences in the UK have not yet been published, Afua Hirsch, Guardian columnist cited a study by the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre of more than 2000 people critically ill with the virus which showed that 35% were BAME.  The BBC reported data from Chicago in the US that shows 70% of deaths being of African Americans compared with 30% of the population. 

Don’t forget, patterns are noticed, whether discussed formally or not.  Silence on inequalities or the use of broad terms such as ‘people’ when the factors have a massively disproportionate impact on particular social groups is at best, a form of non-validation of people’s experiences.  Some forms of inequality are not unexpected when they emerge and good leadership anticipates and responds to these.


4.     Lead on achieving an increased understanding of behaviours in a social context

When patients or service users are anxious they may be less filtered in their behaviours.  Some behaviours might be unequivocally based on prejudice and some might be temperaments that are generally challenging.  Staff may notice increasing levels of racist abuse and/or experience more abruptness that is not explicitly racialised but which may feel like racist behaviour because of their prior experiences of microaggressions.  Such patterns can be anticipated and good inclusive leadership is alert to this.  It is imperative to include people who are affected in such ways in your planning for a response to a crisis.


5.     Robustly challenge targeted prejudice specific to the crisis

A form of inequality that is widely known about but which is not acknowledged sends a message of complicity. Lead by communicating clearly your stance on any form of prejudice (e.g. the increased racism against Chinese in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic). Name it and set clear standards about acceptable behaviour from both staff and service users or patients.


6.     Be inclusive in planning for recovery

There will be lessons learned in, and as a result of a crisis and all sections of the citizenship are able to bring perspectives to help build for the future and to help inform responses to any later crisis that arise.  A hallmark of inclusive leadership is the engagement and involvement of a broad range of social groups and perspectives.


These are not intended to be a comprehensive list of actions for leading equality in a crisis but are some key red flag areas that anyone leading diverse organisations and teams may wish to take on board.


Hári Sewell and Karen Line run a highly evaluated day-course or modular programme on ‘Leading Diverse Organisations and Teams’


As part of our ongoing research interest in this area we are interested in hearing from you about your approaches and reflections on protecting equality in a crisis.


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