Social Care Nursing: a voice to lead.

The following blog is adapted from an address given to the Scottish Care Nursing event ‘I feel, I see, I imagine’ on the International Day of the Nurse ten days ago.

First of all, I want to say that I am both honoured and delighted to be asked to open this day full as it is with such interesting contributions and sessions and also the launch of a research report which having read it is an amazing piece of work. It encapsulates the real authentic voice of frontline experts – who are the nurses who work in social care.

Today I hardly need to tell you is the International Day of the Nurse which is held on an annual basis on the birthday of the inspired and inspirational Florence Nightingale who despite historical revisionism and relativism still remains a significant originator and pioneer of the nursing profession today.

Every year the International Council of Nurses announces the theme of the day which this year is ‘Nurses: A Voice to Lead – Invest in nursing and respect rights to secure global health.’

It is a day which the ICN asks us to focus on the need to protect, support and invest in the nursing profession to strengthen health systems around the world.

In today’s brief remarks as I open this event, I want to take and explore the same theme – the need to listen to social care nursing as a leadership voice.

Sounds simple enough – the requirement to listen to the authentic voice of nurses as we seek to embed rights and dignity in our health systems.

But immediately we are faced with the reality that often those who make the strategic decisions in our health and social care systems are not that good at listening to the voice of nurses – full stop. Some of you might say it is aye been like this.

And even if health and care system leaders do listen to nurses it would appear they are not that good at listening to the distinctive voice of social care nursing. And even less effective at letting that voice lead.

There is of course a world of a difference between listening and actually hearing what is being said. Indeed, there are some classic barriers to effective listening which anyone who has undertaken a basic course in counselling will be all too familiar with.

I want to reflect on some of them – in fact four of them – in part to try to explain why the voice of frontline social care nursing seems to be being ignored in some quarters … and because it might say something about nursing on a day when we are asked to listen to the authentic voice of frontline nurses.

We know that one classic barrier which stops people really hearing what is being said and what is happening is what is called assumptive listening – that is when listening to another we make assumptions about the speaker’s meaning or intention—and usually before the speaker has finished.

It’s the one which I suspect many of us who have been parents have perhaps fallen foul of – presuming knowledge of what you are going to be told and then finishing the sentence of your child especially if they are struggling or taking a time to say it. After all we are the parent, we know what it is they are going to say! Don’t we?

Sound familiar? There is a dangerous and presumptive arrogance might I suggest in assuming you know what another health or social care professional does in their role or what they want to say; or what they need from you.

Yet is that not what has sadly been the experience of too many tuning into this event? What may have had started from the best original motivation –  to support a stressed sector – namely the creation of oversight responsibility for Directors of Nursing – reactively and politically introduced by the former Cabinet Secretary – has in some parts of the country turned into a process which is causing untold damage to the inter-disciplinary partnerships and multi-disciplinary work between care home and primary care colleagues.

To treat professionals of considerable expertise in a manner which has demeaned and diminished their professionalism, has marginalised their skill base and called into question their integrity and autonomy has been and continues in some parts of Scotland to be hugely damaging. It is most certainly not letting the authentic voice of social care nursing to lead which is today’s task and invitation.

I believe and have argued this for some time – but then again, my pleas and those of others have fallen on deaf ears – that we have to urgently address these self-inflicted wounds as a whole system or the damage done will be irreparable and the loss of significant senior nursing leadership in social care will be irreplaceable. We can and must do so much better.

A second failing in the ability to listen to social care nursing voices comes from what psychologists describe as self-protective listening.

Here, the listener is so wrapped up in their own situation and/or emotional response to it that they simply have no brain-space to hear or concentrate on anything else. Undeniably the last two years in particular have been exceptionally stressful for frontline nursing staff in our care homes – but we recognise that this has also been the case in the community and in our acute sectors. We have all been under immense pressure – and demands have been disproportionate and sometimes overwhelming. In such a stressful environment, relationships almost inevitably can become frayed and fractured; a word is misinterpreted, a tone of voice misunderstood and damage to pre-existing relationships can result.

I would like to think that moving on we can as a collective in health and social care be open about our mutual tendency to self-protect ourselves, colleagues, and organisations. It is only then that we can move forward. But I do not think we are in that place at the moment.

Partly that is because there is a lack of being able – or even willing – to walk in the footsteps of those whose world is different from our own. We are all guilty of the barrier of seeking to protect our self and our own – especially understandable in a crisis context. But now it is imperative that we work together to ensure that we can create environments, spaces and places where we are enabled to really hear the other –because the creation of and reality of disrespect necessitates the fostering of trust.Part of that trust also needs to acknowledge yet another barrier to effectively listening to the voice of frontline social care nursing – and that is judgmental listening.

Often someone who is judgemental is someone who only listens to the surface of what another says, or who only listens to the bits that they want to hear. It is often a barrier which is rooted in preconceived ideas, or inherited beliefs and presumptions.

And let us be honest long before Covid appeared as the nightmare in our lives that it was and is, the ability of others in the wider nursing and healthcare system to listen without judgement to the voice, contribution and role of social care nursing was missing in action.

I well remember taking part in the initial Voices from the Nursing Frontline research shortly after I started this job and sitting with a talented and experienced care home nurse manager. After a while she welled up in tears reciting how devalued and marginalised, she had been made to feel by former NHS colleagues who saw her role as being limited, of little clinical skill and of in her words ‘babysitting the elderly.’ An otherwise strong person felt that the whole basis of her career choices, her love of dementia nursing, her passion for care, which was more than just transactional, had been pulled like a carpet from under her feet.

We have a long mile to go before we reach the destination where the specialism, the uniqueness, the glory and the astonishing mosaic of skills that social care nursing offers are fully respected, recognised and valued. We need to end the blatant discrimination and stigma that exists – and that is still happening at pre-registration stage, through academia, in clinical practice and in nursing governance and regulation.

If people are not heard they shut down, they find their own silence, and they end up not communicating, and that does huge personal damage to the individual but equally important it does damage to the whole nursing community and profession.

But perhaps the most challenging form of listening that social care nurses have spoken to me about as a barrier – is our fourth and last and is what is termed defensive listening.

This is when someone takes everything you say as a personal challenge and feels that they need to defend themselves or others, or the system, or the government and so on. This effectively shuts down communication and turns dialogue into a tennis match where each point made is batted back by a ‘but’ ‘or ‘we feel the same’ or ‘it happens like that in the NHS’ etc. It is a view and response which leaves no room for challenge, for exploring points of view different from your own. It silences contribution and it puts the listener in control rather than requiring her to be attentive.

To conclude these comments on listening I believe that if we are to be open to allowing the voice of social care nursing to lead, we first have to acknowledge that as a whole system we have failed to listen, to be open and to hear.

If we do that then I think we start to move on and re-build and restore trust, respect and mutuality. But it requires work and resource, focus and determination – it will not just happen by accident.

And If we create such a space and place for frontline social care nursing to be truly heard then I very much feel that what that professional group of social care nurses might say to us will change the whole of the nursing community.

Some of that voice is beautifully and brilliantly articulated in the work which has been published today which shows authenticity, richness and depth – and I leave it to you to read and enjoy.

But I want to share some concluding personal thoughts about why I think if we listen to social care nursing, we will hear a story of unique distinctiveness worth listening to.

The first thing is that to celebrate social care nursing we need to start emphasising the distinctiveness of what is social in that phrase. In too many instances we use the phrase social in a diminished and dismissive manner. But we should be proud that this is not healthcare nursing in a traditional acute sector or even community nursing sense – we need to explore and voice the distinctive dimensions of what social  nursing means.

For me the thing that needs to be most celebrated is the relational dimension within social care nursing– not just the fact that the nurse has time and opportunity to build relationships with the resident, family and others – but that the whole dynamic of person-to person nursing changes BECAUSE of the fact that this is social care nursing.

Add to that the fact that social care nursing is about enabling the person to remain connected, involved, and meaningful in their family and community. It is about enabling the person to better self-manage, to direct their care and support…expressed so well in terms of dementia and palliative and end of life care support. The social care nurse becomes the co-enabler of care, even in moments of extremis and at end of life the individual remains in control.

It is about addressing not just the clinical, physical and psychological needs of the individual in discrete terms but to attend to the whole person in a holistic manner which is rarely possible and seldom achieved within a purely clinical setting or attention.

I am not going too far when I suggest that nursing professionals from other disciplines would learn a lot from the nature of social care nursing and its unique dynamics.

And I could go on – but the social dimension is not about drinking cups of tea and coffee and eating cakes – though not to dismiss that dimension of alongsideness – it is much much more, it is the essence of human relating, alongside and companionship – which correct me if I am wrong were three critical elements for one Florence Nightingale.

My second and final reflection is to share with you that earlier this week I was privileged to visit Queens University in Belfast and to spend time with Dr Anita Mallon and Professor Christine Brown Wilson both from the School of Nursing.

They have spent time working with care home nursing and care staff in general over the last period to develop a phenomenally good resource based on the theme of resilience. I am looking forward to its final publication because it shows authentically the uniqueness of the amazing women and men, we all know who work in care homes not just in Scotland and Northern Ireland but in so many aged care facilities across the world.

I was asked in interview to reflect on the word resilience and what it means for social care nursing given the last couple of years. And I had to confess a personal discomfort with the term.

Resilience in a technical sense is described as

the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.  (American Psychological Association 2012)

And my goodness we have needed resilience in care home and social care nursing over the last wee while

The reason I am not always comfortable with the idea of resilience is that sometimes it can suggest that you respond to challenge by bouncing back to the way you were, that you return to the shape you were, return to the status quo.

But that’s not what we need – we need rather a recovery and a reshaping. We cannot and must not go back to the way care home nursing was treated before the pandemic and absolutely certainly not to the way in which care home nursing is being treated now. The social care nursing sector has been to hell and back during the pandemic – we must now move forward with strength and voice. We need to shout from the rooftops how critical social care nursing is and that we will not be silent.

Moving forward the task of all of us is to reshape and recover the essence of good care home nursing and more widely social care nursing.

That essence, that shape, has been strained and stretched but has rarely been broken – and in that sense it has been and will always be resilient.

It Is an essence for me which puts relationship with all the contradictory dynamics of relationship nursing at the heart of all that is done.

But we need to invest as the International Council of Nurses has said

We need to

Invest respect

Invest trust

Invest time

Invest resource

Invest knowledge

Invest autonomy


If we do so as individuals and as a whole health and social care system, we will make ourselves open to hear what is being said and by doing so that which we hear from the authentic voices of social care nurses will lead us on.

We will hear that the ability to foster, continue, embed, and improve human relationships are intrinsic to excellent nurse leadership wherever that is exercised.

I leave you with the words of the inspiration of this day. In a letter to her lifelong friend Mary Clark, who was certainly the person who inspired her to break away from the shackles of the societal conventions of the time, Florence Nightingale wrote in 1844:

“I think one’s feelings waste themselves in words; they ought all to be distilled into actions, and into actions which bring results.”

It is time not to waste any more words … it is time having listened to act.

Donald Macaskill