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'You don’t brush your teeth to help the country’s economy'

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It is my job in the family to go to the supermarket and buy us food. At the end of this endeavour, the person on the till gives me dozens of bits of paper that I am expected to store away until next week so I can earn things like bonus points, a two-for-one offer on jelly and 5p off a Volkswagon Beetle.

I’m not very good at holding on to bits of paper at the best of times but I have tried to join in and have felt positively triumphant when I have produced the right slip of paper that has got me £1.21 off the family shop and 10p off some biscuits I don’t like.

In these straitened times, a successful day is measured in how much money we can save and, people who don’t engage - if, for example, I throw all the bits of paper away because I don’t want to have that kind of relationship with a shop - are profligate or plain stupid.

We measure the world in money saved. Last week, we were told that getting children to brush their teeth in nursery saves the country £6m. That news is bound to encourage very small children everywhere to see the benefits of self-care even though we grown-ups know that £6m is chicken feed.

If we could get the trains to run on time, we would save £1bn a year in lost time. Well, it was £1bn in 2008. It would probably be far more now given how rubbish the trains are and how much more expensive time is.

But, before you pick up your shovels and head off to remove leaves from the line, you may want to remember that according to BackCare, the charity for healthier backs, back pain costs us another £1bn a year. What are you going to do? Clear the railway tracks and risk hurting your back or stay away and risk the trains not getting through? It’s a worry.

Meanwhile, depression is costing us £9bn a year. Cheer up, for goodness sake, can’t you see what we are doing to the economy here?

From our reckless abandonment of our children’s teeth through our musculoskeletal struggles to our misery, we cost money. Damn us. Damn us all to hell.

Economics is the universal measure of all things now. It is all we have to demonstrate how serious or important something is.

Yet, for most of us, it is not why we do what we do. I have never heard a nurse say she came into the job because she wanted to save the country money any more than I have heard a five-year-old say they are brushing their teeth for the collective economic good.

Nurses nurse in order to do something else, something good. However, that “good” is not quantifiable in a way that can be shared socially, so we are reduced to cost; it is all we have.

The problem with measuring everything according to how much money it saves is that a widespread delusion emerges whereby we imagine we do whatever we do to save money. Saving money is not the purpose of nursing. You have more important things to be getting on with.

I understand that we have been lulled into thinking about society as nothing more than an economy and I understand that this particular government benefits from that seduction.

However, we know, don’t we, that you can know the cost of everything while knowing the value of nothing. It’s a shame that we are invited every day to keep proving that fact.

Mark Radcliffe is senior lecturer, and author of the new novel “Stranger Than Kindness”. Follow him on twitter @markacradcliffe

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Readers' comments (1)

  • I enjoyed reading this article. It's clear to see our societie's values are upside down and a career built around caring is therefore going to suffer greatly. Morale is battered with continual cutbacks, low staffing levels, increasing workload, unpaid overtime etc.
    I find it frustrating being forced to play this economic 'game' but in agreement with this article, I think we must remind ourselves of our core values of what nursing means to us and why we became a nurse in the first place and leave the management to play games.
    Unfortunately if the management wins, then we lose with burnout and the patients lose in care and the NHS loses in reputation... "something must be done"..."privatisation" says the MP.
    We are society, we need to change our values.

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