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BLOG: In Support of Nurses

BASW England Manager Ruth Cartwright explains why the social work profession should support nurses.

Our nurse colleagues are going through a bit of a torrid time at the moment. MP Ann Clwyd’s tragic experience when her husband was dying has made headline news, while the Francis Report on Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, where over 400 mainly frail older people died before their time and experienced similar callous treatment, is due for publication in January.
 
Nurses, for so long the ‘Angels’ of the red tops, have been condemned by the same press as “cold and uncaring”. Calls have been made for nurses to rediscover their compassion and to smile more, with doubts raised about those with degrees being “too posh to wash”. This has culminated in the Chief Nursing Officer for England, Jane Cummings, launching a three-year strategy focussing on “compassionate care”.
 
Morale must be at rock bottom, something social workers know a thing or too about. We remember the cases of Baby Peter Connelly, Victoria Climbie and others when mistakes – most not by social workers at all – led to tragedy and the subsequent condemnation of an entire profession. Such has been the opprobrium heaped at social work’s door over the years that I must admit to sometimes wondering why nurses, other medics and the police seem immune to similar hostility.
 
When disastrous events have been unequivocally laid at their door, we haven’t seen the wholesale pillorying we in social work have received. I have heard the view that this is because everyone will need a nurse or a doctor or police assistance at some time in their lives so we want to believe the best and have a more balanced view of those professions. On the other hand, social worker clients often have a degree of stigma attached, an ‘otherness’, which is perhaps passed on to those who serve them.
 
So do we support nurses in their time of trial or not? I don’t recall anyone coming forward from that or any other profession to support us at the time of the Peter Connelly furore. No-one except BASW seemed willing to explain to sectors of the press that other professionals had also been involved, that there was a context to consider when reflecting on what had happened, that those who actually killed Peter were those responsible for his care who had deceived and lied and manipulated to evade detection.  The knee-jerk political response was extremely unhelpful and bears more than a passing reminiscence to the case of the Rotherham foster parents where the case is now turning out to be a lot more complicated than their mere affiliation to UKIP.
 
Yet the case for supporting nurses is persuasive. Social workers work closely with that profession in hospital settings and in the community. We sometimes have a different way of looking at things (crudely typified by the medical versus the social model), but are often able to work effectively together. There are some nurses in mental health who think we are exactly like them, notwithstanding the fact we cannot do injections and know more about housing benefit. So too, there are many nurses who understand and respect our professional distinctiveness and value, just as we acknowledge theirs.
 
So let’s stick up for nurses who work with so many of the same people as we do – “you say ‘patient’, I say ‘service user’ – that’s no reason to call the whole thing off”. Let’s explain when we get the chance that nurses have been in short supply for years and that this is getting worse with the current and ongoing public spending cuts (between 4,500 and 6,000 posts lost in the last three years). Let’s emphasise that nurses, like social workers, are stymied by targets and ‘efficiency’ based restructurings which are nothing to do with caring, compassionate practice. 
 
And let’s reinforce the view of nursing leaders that they too face similarly relentless demands of bureaucracy and IT systems, are bound by managerialism which prevents them from carrying out their jobs as they would wish to, and that they too cannot speak out about wrongdoings because whistleblowers are rarely welcomed, and can even be severely punished. We should also make it clear that much of what nurses do is wilfully misunderstood by the tabloids, that reporting of their work is rarely balanced and fair, and that a huge amount of excellent work is carried out by dedicated professionals, sometimes despite huge obstacles.
 
There is also the context of the government’s planned changes to the NHS and the increase in privatisation to consider – might it not suit the objectives of ministers very well to be able to say a large part of the present NHS is dysfunctional? And who better to attack than a profession made up mainly of women who are relatively poorly paid and endure extremely tough working conditions.
 
Well known comedian Jo Brand, co-writer of the BBC’s sensitive sitcome about geriatric nursing, Getting On, used a column on the Guardian's Comment is Free last week to ask: “Does anyone really go into nursing intending to be apathetic, cold and removed from suffering?” Elsewhere on the Guardian site, commentator Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote of nursing: “The reality is complicated, and – since we all need the care of a nurse sooner or later – it's time we started to acknowledge that.”
 
These points are so similar to those we make in the media all the time about social work and social workers – that we enter the profession to try and make life better for people and that the story is always more complicated than reported. Perhaps next time something goes wrong in social work or social care Jo Brand and Ellie Mae O' Hagan will speak up for us, especially as the former’s mother was a prominent social worker.
 
Regardless, we still want to see our nurse colleagues treated fairly and with more understanding of the difficult circumstances in which they work, some of which may have led to some of them not showing the degree of compassion we would wish. The solution is to remove those pressures, not to attack and devalue a worthy profession and all those who work in it.