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Georgie Coster

Priceless but penniless: The ‘heroes’ denied a pay rise

Georgie is a staff nurse in an emergency surgery unit in the English midlands and is also CMF's Associate Head of Nurses & Midwives.
The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of CMF.

On 21 July, the Treasury announced a pay rise for almost 900,000 public sector workers. Months into a pandemic, this was surely a perceptive move by the government to cultivate a positive relationship with its valuable ‘frontliners’. However, not everybody embraced the pay rise, because the pay rise did not embrace everybody. In the NHS, the raise will only incorporate dentists and senior doctors, leaving nurses, midwives, junior doctors, healthcare assistants, cleaners, porters, paramedics, therapy staff and many other professionals excluded, not to mention those working in social care who have risked their lives to care for the sick and vulnerable.

The rationale: Many of those excluded are in the final year of a three-year Agenda for Change pay deal, while junior doctors signed an agreement last year after a hard-fought battle. Not at all satisfied with that reasoning, protestors have filled the streets in more than 30 UK cities to express their disgust at the decision. ‘NHS hero but my purse still says zero’ was the cry of a banner held high in defiance. Whether we’ll be receiving a pay increase or not, as Christian healthcare professionals, what are we to make of this? Is it just about money?

In recent months, while the fight against the virus has taken centre stage, another battle has bubbled under the surface: the fight for hero status. One example is the rivalry between the NHS and social care which has perhaps been at its most unsubtle. At the beginning of the outbreak when testing was scarce, NHS staff were offered tests before those working in care homes. The same unfolded with PPE, leaving care sector managers feeling undervalued and neglected by the government. The government’s response was a badge emblazoned ‘CARE’, allowing ‘social care staff proudly and publicly to identify themselves’. The response also promised testing and (finally) access to PPE. Those were the two things Matt Hancock had been pressed for, so why the need to throw in a badge? My theory: he sensed that social care sector workers were crying out for more than masks and gowns and tests. They wanted recognition. They weren’t the only ones. Supermarket workers urged Thursday clappers not to forget that they too were key workers, keeping the nation afloat in its hour of need.

It seems that whenever we elevate a certain profession to hero status, the rest of us are provoked to jealousy and a nationwide competition ensues. If ever you want substantial proof of living in a fallen world, just think about how quickly saying ‘thank you’ leads to bitterness.

This competitive spirit transcends professions: who has sacrificed more during the pandemic – teachers or healthcare workers? Then, within healthcare itself there is intra-disciplinary rivalry: Is the true backbone of the NHS its doctors or its nurses? Even within our disciplines, we make jibes about other specialties who do less work than ourselves (or so we perceive). Something within us objects when we suspect that we are working harder than others. It’s not fair. Maybe it’s an aspect of our God-given longing for justice, now tainted by the fall. This instinctive thirst for recognition makes it difficult to obey Colossians 3:23: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters’. Why is that so hard? Would it be easier if we really believed the promise of verse 24, that even in ‘secular’ work, we are serving Jesus and therefore will receive reward from him?

A recent news article gave one doctor’s insight:

‘Heroes sacrifice themselves for others. In Marvel comics, they come to save the day. They take risks and don’t expect anything in return – and that’s OK, because that’s what happens to heroes.’

She is one of many healthcare professionals who object to being called heroes because heroes volunteer. In contrast, they argue, healthcare professionals are employed to provide a service for which they have been promised an appropriate financial recompense. Where we believe our reward is coming from is crucial. If it is coming only in the form of the digits on a payslip and the respect of our nation, then when those things are threatened, we will inevitably struggle to work whole-heartedly without resentment. But if the reward we are most excited about is yet to come – an eternal reward from a God who does not forget – then pay rises and national applause pale into insignificance.

Of course, if we take this position to the extreme then we might also argue that the national minimum wage be scrapped, or even that it’s acceptable for humans to be trafficked, forced into labour and denied their wages. If those trafficked workers are Christians, should they not be pleased to have an opportunity to work for the glory of God and do so without grumbling? We’re called by God to seek justice, to open our mouths on behalf of the voiceless and defend the oppressed. So, when does championing sacrificial service become encouraging exploitation?

Sometimes our colleagues work hours that can’t be compatible with their safety or that of their patients. They rely on foodbanks despite working full time because they have bills to pay, mouths to feed and their wages just don’t suffice. That doesn’t feel right. And we can speak up – sign the petition; write the letter; go to the protest. However, we must realise that our attitude to our own work is of utmost importance and that this season of exasperation among colleagues is an opportunity for us to shine, knowing that while our earthly rewards may waver, our treasure in heaven is secure.

The doctor cited above was later quoted in the same article: ‘We should get paid what we’re worth’. In a life transformed by Jesus, the narrative is radically different. Work no longer needs to be a fight to prove our significance. We can escape from the relentless societal contest for busiest, most virtuous, most essential. With our value fixed in Christ, we can decide to make our work about showing the world what He is worth, not what we are worth. Society may change their mind about who they clap on any given day of the week. Restaurants may change their mind on who qualifies for special discounts. The government may change its mind on who is eligible for a pay rise. But in the Kingdom of God, neurosurgeons and telemarketers have equal importance and an equal opportunity to glorify God. The choice is ours: be worshipped for our work or worship with our work.

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