By: Barbara Goulden
Guardian newspapers Journalist
(pictured:Nurse Karen Reissmann and Nurse Val Midson A Staunch and often vocal supporter of the Guiding Principles of the NHS)
IF you are a trade unionist working in the NHS then surely your responsibilities extend to speaking out in the interests of the wider public, not simply on the pay and conditions of union members. This is the core belief that kept sackedmental health nurse Karen Reissmann strong during her 17-month battle to win back her job.
Last week (Jan 28) her claim to a Manchester industrial tribunal of unfair dismissal was suddenly stopped and settled out of court.
This shocked some ex-patients in the Manchester Users’ Network – particularly as they were spearheading a fundraising campaign to pay the £19,000 towards the nurse’s legal fees.
Miss Reissmann’s union, Unison, along with hundreds of NHS colleagues and members of the National Union of Journalists were also backing her campaign for reinstatement.
Most people believe that the community psychiatric nurse – who was suspended in June, 2007, and sacked that November – must have already rejected previous offers of out-of-court settlements.
If these were as high as any tribunal could award, then Unison officials would have been obliged to advise the 49-year-old to accept a deal – which might explain why the union did not continue to pick up the full bill for her legal backing.
But Miss Reissmann – who was formally dismissed on the same day a letter arrived in the post promoting her to the post of senior nurse practitioner – wasn’t fighting for the money. She was fighting for the right to win her job back.
Before the tribunal and throughout earlier hearings, she had stated, quite clearly: “I think trade union representatives have an obligation to stand up and speak if they think the way an NHS service is being organised is not in the best interests of patients.
“When the cleaning of hospitals was privatised it was not only about union members losing their jobs it was about the way that job would be done in the future.”
What surprised everyone was that the expected week-long tribunal was halted, after just a day and a half. The “whistleblower” had apparently settled for an undisclosed compensation package along with a statement from her former employers.
The statement read: “Karen Reissmann was dismissed by Manchester Mental Health and Social Care NHS Trust for gross misconduct for matters unrelated to clinical practise.
“The parties are satisfied that the dispute between them has been resolved and the employment tribunal proceedings are at an end by agreement being reached to their mutual satisfaction. No further comment will be made by either party in the matter.”
Effectively, this is a gagging order preventing the nurse from explaining anything more about her unexpected decision – or whether she has any chance of a being employed by the NHS in the future. Throughout the months leading up to the hearing she had continued mental health nursing in another part of Greater Manchester.
Reading between the lines, the well-respected nurse, who lives in Hulme, was actually suspended six months after an interview she gave to a voluntary sector magazine on the issue of outsourcing mental health services.
She made no secret of the fact that she felt the long-term rehabilitation needs of those suffering from conditions like schizophrenia, bio-polar disease and clinical depression were not best served by private or voluntary agencies where there tended to be a high turnover of staff.
In an interview given before the latest tribunal, Miss Reissmann explained how she began her own career in January 1982 at the old Springfield Hospital, once a Victorian workhouse, which until the 1990s, stood in the grounds of North Manchester General Hospital at Crumpsall.
She admits she fainted when she was first asked to assist in administering electric shock treatment (ECT) to a patient. In those days ECT was sometimes delivered compulsorily.
She said: “A friend suggested I might like psychiatric nursing because it involved getting to know people and to understand them; helping them to deal with their difficulties. I loved the job straight away and 27 years later I still love it and would like to use my experience to carry on.
“I remember that as a student nurse I was paid £178 a month and extra at the weekends; something trainee nurses today would think was very fortunate. Even so, the pay rates for qualified general nurses like my mother were always poor. It was why I joined the a trade union six months after starting work.
“After working in the hospital I moved on to community mental health nursing, dealing with the cases of people with severe mental health problems, offering support and professional development and supervision within a team.
“If we get to know patients and their families we can be alerted to the first signs of somebody becoming ill again, then work to reduce stress levels, increase support, perhaps offer a higher dose of medication so that a patient never actually goes into a full-blown relapse.
“In mental health care experience is vital to assess the risk levels, which are mainly to the patient themselves. I was aware that private and voluntary sector bodies have very high turnovers of staff because they can’t offer the same pay and pension rights as the NHS and are often subject to rolling one year contracts offering little job security.”
Miss Reissmann repeatedly pointed out that her concerns almost entirely stemmed from the outsourcing of highly sensitive work to those with far less experience.
She admitted: “There are many good people working in the voluntary sector but, as soon as they acquire some experience, they naturally use that experience to apply for better paid jobs in the NHS or social services.”
In the magazine article that got her into trouble, Miss Reissmann was careful not to name names. As far as she was concerned, she was making observations in her capacity as a union leader.
Since then, her doubts about any transfer of services to outside bodies, appears not to have been without foundation. Manchester Users’ Network spokesman Paul Reed, who lives in Newton Heath and suffers from bio-polar disease, said: “Karen was an excellent nurse – a real Florence Nightingale. We expected to raise £19,000 for her case because she was only sacked for voicing concerns that some of us had already raised.”
Another ex-client, wheelchair-user Marjorie Jones who lives in Moston and once suffered badly with depression, said: “Karen visited me for four years and I really loved her, she was like a sister. She used to take off her coat and sit down and I’ve give her cake and a drink. You could always have a laugh with her and once, when I broke out in a rash, she helped me to the bath and put cream all over me.”
So what does the future hold now for Karen Reissmann?
After the tribunal, Alec McFadden, north west regional TUC executive, says: “Hopefully Karen will be able to get a job back within the NHS in the future. Certainly her patients need her.” Paul Reed won’t argue with that.
Original story Feb, 2009