Busting the myth that support workers don’t lead

Kay Parnell is a rare blend among CSP members as she’s an associate member, a steward and staffside chair. Gary Henson went to Exeter to meet her

Kay Parnell [Photos: Simon Ridgway]

Kay Parnell, an assistant therapy practitioner, is the elected chair of the body that represents all the trade unions at a large teaching hospital, the Royal Devon and Exeter. 

In addition to her professional role she is in a leadership position with significant influence. She’s leading and managing other trade unions at staffside meetings and meeting with senior management at director-level, representing the whole trade union side and giving their view over to management.

Parnell’s been a CSP steward for nearly five years. The idea came from a manager at the end of a long process when she was sick following maternity leave, as she explains:

‘I had some issues returning from maternity leave because I had back problems resulting from pregnancy and my hypermobility.’

This then became a workplace issue and she had to get the CSP steward involved.

‘At the end I gave my manager some feedback about how they had dealt with me. It was from that she said “Have you ever thought about becoming the steward?”

‘She planted the seed that I’d thought about in the past but I don’t think I had the confidence to do it. 

‘When you go through something like I did as a workplace issue it gives you the confidence to stand up and say ‘I want to support members’.

‘Having had the support from the CSP steward I wanted to give that back and the time is probably right now to be a steward, to be able to support other staff.’

Half way through a geography degree at the University of Wolverhampton Parnell realised the passion wasn’t there: ‘Near the end of year two I thought ‘is this the right thing for me to do?’ I was into my fitness, I was going to the gym every day.’

That led to ditching the degree and doing a three-month sports therapy course and a diploma in personal training and sports therapy. After this, Parnell started work as a personal fitness trainer and sports therapist in the corporate gym at the Met Office, the UK’s national weather service based in Exeter, where she did gym instruction, ran exercise classes and wrote and developed a nutritional programme. Many of the 1,200 staff there were in desk-based office jobs. She says: ‘They had postural, back problems, they wanted to be more active because of their sedentary lifestyle, sitting in an office for so long.’

Sporting family

Sport runs in the family: Parnell’s father played football and her older brother, Richard, was in the England schools swimming team. 

She recalls: ‘I’ve always had an interest in exercise and sport. PE was my favourite subject at school where I loved team games and played netball and rounders and badminton, and went to the gym quite a bit.

‘Even now as a family, for my son’s birthday, we went to the local field and played cricket.’

She had surgery last year on an arthritic shoulder and part of the rehabilitation is swimming. She is well on her way to getting back to swimming a mile, three times a week, a combination of breast stroke and front crawl.

As a person, a steward and a staffside chair Parnell says she’s developed “massively’’ in confidence.

‘You see more of the day to day running of the hospital because of the different groups that we’re involved with such as policy, procedures, negotiations and the management side of things.

‘You learn so much more from them because you’re part of those groups.

Get involved

‘I’ve developed in confidence. I have no problem in going to talk to a manager, whether that’s at director level or at band 7 level.’

On the day of my visit, Parnell was part of the presentation panel for the associate director of people recruitment.

‘Five years ago I would never have dreamed I’d have the confidence of going to talk to a director of the trust. Now I have no problem.  Parnell said she ‘loves’ being staffside chair.

‘You can make so much difference. You have meetings with the right people to make changes happen.’

Support worker development

Parnell feels that the new apprenticeship pathway, which can support personal and career development for physiotherapy support workers, is a good option but the implementation of it and access to it is still lacking in her region. She thinks that if this were made more accessible like it is for nursing, physio support workers would stay in roles for longer and might think twice about training to do other things or heading down a degree route. 

She believes that a range of roles and career development options should be available to support workers. This includes how services might capitalise on the vast experience of support workers who have been in the same role for many years but would like to stay as a support worker. 

Parnell feels particularly passionate about this issue and driving through equitable access to training and development for physio support workers is something that’s top of her list as a CSP steward and staff side chair.  

Something different

Asked how more support workers can be encouraged to put themselves forward as safety reps or stewards, she said: 

My experience shows that you don’t have to be a registered member of staff to do something different. Being a steward is a different aspect to your job. If support workers are looking for something different to do then try being a steward because I absolutely loved it, it’s the best thing that I’ve ever done. 

‘I get the same satisfaction out of being a steward as I do as a clinician. Just knowing that you’ve helped and supported somebody and got a positive result, is worth its weight in gold.’

And her mantra in approaching non-member support workers?

‘I talk to them about my own personal experiences, that if I wasn’t part of a trade union I wouldn’t have got the support and probably wouldn’t be where I am now. 

‘I never do the hard sell because I think people either want to be in the union or they don’t. If you’ve given them all the information and also case studies or scenarios to back up why they should be in the union, it’s their choice.

‘I keep saying to them there’s a lot of change happening within the NHS. You never know when you’re going to need a union. We go to consultations, we can support you. 

‘We have a noticeboard within the staff room which I have loads of CSP posters on, how to join, there’s recruitment packs everywhere. I do try to, subtly, put it in their face.’


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