Sheilabye Sobrany talks to Wiliam Hunter about a challenging introduction to life as RCN president, as well as her plans and hopes for the future of her tenure
‘Some people have said that it’s a bit of a baptism by fire.’ Sheilabye Sobrany’s description of her first few weeks as RCN president has an air of understatement; she’s not one to complain but it could be argued that she’s had a tougher start than any of her predecessors in the college’s 100-year history.
Made president elect in December 2022 after a campaign dominated by the fallout from the Carr report’s revelations, Ms Sobrany found herself representing the RCN’s executive on the picket line even before her first day in office at the beginning of 2023.
‘My first bit of activism – actually my last bit of activism – had been when I was still at school,’ Ms Sobrany recalls. ‘I was waving a banner over something, though I can’t remember what.’
Seeing nurses in tears on the picket line at the start of strike action affected her deeply. ‘They were asking, “How long can we do this, Sheila?” and I told them we would have to do it as long as we can.’
Before running for RCN president, Ms Sobrany had a long career as a nurse and nurse educator, working as a lecturer in adult nursing at Middlesex University. There, she was the founder and chair of Middlesex University Anti-Racism Network, as well as several other student anti-racism groups. This experience has proven invaluable in taking on the role of RCN president.
‘I learned that everybody needs to be on board with cultural changes,’ Ms Sobrany explains. ‘I wanted to bring that here into this role, and that’s the reason I put myself forward as president.’
Nurses ‘taken for granted’
Compared with previous presidents, she notes that her tenure has begun in a period of unusual upheaval. ‘Obviously, mine seems to be quite a controversial time, and very busy. With the strike action and the Carr review, it’s been quite an interesting time to be here.’
But controversy comes with the territory, as far as Ms Sobrany is concerned. ‘When I was running the nurse networks there was George Floyd’s death, which was quite a controversial time for nursing as many of the nurses who died at the front line of Covid were global ethnic majority – and many of those died without PPE.
‘That was a government responsibility and they took advantage of us. They took advantage of our commitment to our patients. They took us for granted and they still are; that’s why we are where we are now.’
Ms Sobrany relishes the ‘huge privilege and honour’ of representing members as RCN president. ‘It’s a massive responsibility and I don’t take it lightly. I’m very serious and I’m very passionate about representing our members wherever they’re working and at all levels.’
While Ms Sobrany’s presidential campaign focused on the issues of fair pay for nurses and tackling racism in the RCN and wider workforce, she tells Nursing in Practice that her long-term plan is to boost engagement with members, especially in the community.
Asked whether the RCN would be changing its focus to pay greater attention to the community, she promises that engagement will improve.
‘My aim,’ she says, ‘is to go out into the community to meet nurses and to bring that back into the college, and to find out what the issues are.
‘Some areas are very hard to reach, and representation is very important in those areas, especially as we have a lot of international nurses working in the community who need support. There are a lot of nurses out there who need support in their roles and it’s really important to have that connection with the college.’
It is also important to Ms Sobrany that nurses in the community are able to connect with their president. ‘I do have an email where they can reach me,’ she explains. ‘I want to know what issues they are facing; I need to speak to a number of community nurses to find out what we can do to improve their experiences and support them in their careers.’
Focus on career progress
Ms Sobrany believes communication is vital in making sure nursing numbers are revived. ‘We have lost a lot of community nurses. We don’t have enough, and health and social care in the community is dwindling so that is a big risk for our elderly patients and those with long-term conditions.’
Beyond reconnecting with nurses in the community, Ms Sobrany wants to focus on helping nurses progress in their careers and become leaders in their field.
‘Our members often have bad experiences of not being able to progress in their careers. Everybody needs some form of coaching, mentoring or sponsoring. Particularly for those looking at [Agenda for Change] 8a and 8b roles, sponsorship can be a really wonderful opportunity.
‘But also for those in Band 5 and 6 roles, I would say look for every opportunity to develop yourself, even if it means you have to use a bit of your own money. Don’t just sit there waiting, get involved in some exciting opportunities and get into some leadership roles.’
The empowerment of nurses in their roles is important to Ms Sobrany and she wants to be both instigator and role model for this.
She concludes: ‘In whatever direction they feel they want to go in, I want them to look at me and feel they can do this too.’
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