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Are nurses and social workers cut from the same cloth?

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There may be a long tradition of disliking social workers, but nurses should sympathise with their current plight

Feeling worn down by the build-up to Christmas? Undervalued? Stressed? Well look on the bright side – at least you are not a social worker.

Let’s face it – social workers have never been the most popular professionals in the world. Along with estate agents and politicians, they have managed to irritate some of us just by existing.

And doing that while wearing purple cheesecloth and shoes made from bamboo. Yes, all of them.
Given the scrutiny they are under now following the tragedy of Baby P, one must wonder again why this is.

We know why we don’t respect estate agents – they are expensive and they don’t actually do anything. And we know why we don’t respect politicians (page not big enough).

But social workers perform a public service and we know as nurses that public servants tend to collect good will. We would expect the community to be on the side of a profession that exists to protect children or vulnerable adults, or to address the effects of social deprivation or exclusion, wouldn’t we? Yet they are not liked.

It makes sense that social work should be scrutinised. And it makes sense to ask questions about the training, supervision, funding and processes of the profession.

Nurses will recognise the issues. Is the balance right between ‘education’ and ‘hands-on experience’? Is decision-making supported and properly governed?

Nurses are familiar with the suggestion that somehow social work as a graduate profession is creating over-educated and under-experienced practitioners – although difficulties in making clear and appropriate decisions suggest that the type of education being offered is inadequate, rather than there being too much of it.

One would expect that a review of social work might ask questions about the ethos of child protection. Why is it considered best to keep families together in the face of risk and how do they measure the evidence that underpins that?

Most of us know what it is like to work with someone who has made an error or a decision that proved to be the wrong one. We’ll know that someone else’s error can both reflect on us and make us doubt ourselves, and we’ll know how difficult it can be to rebuild confidence. We know perhaps that scrutiny, doubt and uncertainty can spread – and it can change the way people nurse or doctor.

That seems to be happening to a whole profession now. And that may be entirely appropriate and necessary but, as human beings and as sometime colleagues, it is hard not to feel sympathy for social workers at the moment. Silly shoes or not.

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