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Nursing and the blurred line between personal and professional behaviour on social media

For many of us, engaging in social media is an enjoyable and useful way to connect and share aspects of our lives with others. But when does what you do in your own personal time begin to impact on your professional life, and can we ever safely assume ourselves to be 'off duty' when we're online? In this blog, Jessica Jackson, Research Nurse at the University of Derby, looks at the increasingly blurred line between our personal and professional behaviour.

By Jessica Eve Jackson - 26 February 2019

The way we present ourselves on social media is becoming more and more important in the workplace. Even at the recruitment stage, potential employers regularly search for our digital profile to help them build a clearer picture of who we really are and what kind of employee we might make, believing it will tell them more about us than our carefully crafted interview persona.

This crossover between professional and private life, and the increased likelihood of public scrutiny, has led to the rise of e-professionalism or e-accountability, a relatively new term which describes the way a professional should behave and present themselves on digital media.

Professional accountability and public perception within nursing

As a nurse, I am accountable and expected to adhere to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) Professional standards of practice and behaviour (otherwise known as the Code). This independent regulatory body has also published guidance for nurses, midwives and nursing associates on using social media responsibly.

The Code is structured around four themes: prioritising people, practising effectively, preserving safety and promoting professionalism and trust. The guidance highlights how the Code can be applied to social media use, particularly in relation to this last theme, and discusses the importance of nurses protecting their own professionalism and reputation. Additionally, many local NHS trusts and healthcare providers are implementing their own organisational policies as a means to ensure nurses maintain a professional accountability to their employer.

Potential ambiguities in interpretation

Despite professional guidance and organisational policy being in place, the literature outlines a number of issues associated with e-professionalism. Public perceptions of what might be deemed professional or acceptable behaviour for nurses on social media can vary significantly, leading to ambiguity in interpreting the guidance.

If a nurse was identified by a member of the public on social media using aggressive and offensive language or harassing individuals, for example, this would clearly be deemed as unacceptable. But how would you feel about a nurse who posts a potentially controversial political statement on Twitter in response to NHS reforms? Do they have a right, as healthcare professionals, to express their personal opinions openly and publicly, or could this qualify under the Code as damaging the public's trust in the NHS?

To broaden the debate, what if a student nurse posted selfies of them drinking alcohol in nightclubs with their friends on their personal Facebook page? Would this be okay? And if their profile picture could be considered too revealing, would this be viewed as 'unprofessional' by the wider general public? Does it place the whole of the nursing profession into disrepute and show all nurses in a negative light? The more you look into the issue, it becomes clear that what behaviour you think would require further investigation by the employer or action by the NMC is down to a matter of personal opinion.

Researching a more consistent approach

It is exactly this ambiguity in the guidance that has inspired my current research study, conducted in collaboration with Dr Gemma Ryan from the Open University. We are looking to validate a decision-making tool which could be used to assess the acceptability of a range of online behaviours and any actions required as a consequence.

This would help the NMC or healthcare providers to develop clear guidance on how the public perceives the behaviour of nurses, midwives and nursing associates when using social media, allowing them to make more consistent decisions on any possible disciplinary 'action' which may be needed.

If you are not a health professional and would like to share your views on professional behaviour on social media, find out more about taking part in the study. Everyone who takes part will be entered into a prize draw, with the chance to win a £20 Amazon voucher.

Find out more about studying Nursing at the University of Derby.

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About the author

Jessica Jackson

Jessica Eve Jackson
Assistant Programme Lead for Doctorate in Health and Social Care Practice

As a Research Nurse, Jessica Jackson conducts primary and secondary research for the Health and Social Care Research Centre. She is also an academic advisor for Public Health England and an Associate Academic for the University of Derby Online.

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