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The micro sociology of discrimination: overseas nurses’ experiences


New research by Dr John Aggergaard Larsen, Research Fellow at the European Institute of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Surrey suggests that overseas-trained nurses working in the UK experience racist or xenophobic discrimination that often works through subtle ‘little things’ occurring in everyday interaction. The research, which is based on in-depth interviews across England and Wales, and was presented at the BSA Conference 2006 on 22 April 2006, reveals that this can have severe consequences for the life and well-being of the nurses, as it can also impede their career development chances.

Overseas nurses may feel bullied or socially isolated at work. In the research some nurses described how they are always given the jobs performed in solitude, they are confined to sitting by themselves during breaks or patients and relatives avoid approaching them, preferring the white healthcare assistant. Furthermore, overseas nurses feel frequently singled out for negative attention when colleagues make a formal complaint over minor issues that generally go unnoticed if performed by a British colleague.

The career development for overseas nurses can be seriously hindered by the social marginalisation they experience. Rather than actively being treated badly, some report how they see their British colleagues being supported and advised by clinical managers who allow them to ‘act up’ to a higher position or brief or train them before a promotion interview. This unequal treatment means that overseas nurses are in a disadvantaged position in the workplace.

Our research shows that some overseas nurse react to this everyday discrimination by retracting from previous career ambitions and instead concentrate on their family lives. Some successful overseas nurses have, in contrast, described how they actively seek to overcome such difficult social situations through a self-imposed ‘blindness’ to the discrimination of their social surroundings and a strong social skill to re-negotiate their social role, often through humour.

These findings point to the importance of paying attention to the micro sociology of discrimination as it occurs in the everyday of healthcare practice. Apart from disadvantaging migrant workers such processes means that valuable skills and competencies are lost, as individuals are not using and developing their full potential to the benefit of British healthcare provision. Employers and managers should therefore pay more attention to support migrant workers and put a stop to the everyday discrimination.

Dr John Aggergaard Larsen is part of the wider REOH research team: Professor Pam Smith and Dr Helen Allen (Centre for Research in Nursing and Midwifery Education, University of Surrey), Professor Maureen Mackintosh and Dr Leroi Henry (Economics, Open University) and The Royal College of Nursing. The research is funded by the European Social Fund.

Stuart Miller | alfa
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