‘Sometimes being invisible isn’t helpful’ by Jim Thomas

There is something about invisibility that has always appealed to me and at its best I have always thought the best social care support is invisible. 

What I mean by this is that when social care support is going well, it sits there in the background, always making sure it is the voice of the person with social care support needs that are front, left, right and centre to everything that person is involved in.

Whilst being invisible is a good thing from a support perspective, I have started to wonder if invisibility gets in the way of the improving the general public’s perspective of social care. If you don’t notice social care workers, why would you see the need to value what they do?

One of the pieces of work my team have been involved in over the pandemic has looked at young people’s perceptions of social care as a career option. Whilst the pandemic has had a positive impact on perceptions of health care, perceptions of social career are that it’s a risky, poorly paid option, with little or no career prospects.

This plays back into the disadvantages of being invisible. When you are invisible it’s easy to ignore you, to forget you have a voice, to assume that your needs don’t need to be addressed. To offer token support when you ‘can be seen’ and withdraw that support when it becomes inconvenient, or too much hassle to do something about your invisibility.

Being invisible is a brilliant way to make sure that the people you support are heard. It’s not as good if you want to encourage the public and people more widely to value the role of those who work in social care. 

This creates an unavoidable conundrum. We need to make sure that everyone (and I mean everyone) starts to see and value the work of our social care workforce in the same way they value people who work in the health service. At the same time, we need to enable the social care workforce to remain invisible. 

One of the ways I think we can address this is to stop talking about how awful it is that there are so many vacancies in social care and start talking about how many amazing opportunities there are in social care. Let’s talk about how good it feels to support someone’s personal needs. How when you get that support right it can set that person up for a day of feeling good about themselves. Let’s talk about how it feels to support someone to meet up with their friends and have an evening out and how the memories from that evening can keep someone going for the next few weeks. Let’s talk about the opportunity to get to know someone you are supporting so well that when that person’s health changes you are the person who can ensure they get the right treatment, at the right time, in a respectful and dignified manner.

I am not trying to whitewash over the innumerable challenges facing many who work in social care at the moment. What I am saying is that we need to take control of the narrative. Working in social care can be challenging, frustrating and make you weep. It can also be joyful, fun and life affirming.

Looking beyond the current crisis in social care and thinking twelve months ahead, if we could all enable our invisible social care workforce to be visible and invisible at the same time, maybe we would begin to value them more and subsequently value the people they empower more too.

Jim Thomas

Jim Thomas is Head of Workforce Innovation, Recruitment and Retention at Skills for Care, the workforce development lead organisation for adult social care in England. Jim has been engaged in social care and health for 30 years. His work has included leading national programmes on workforce redesign, the development of principles for workforce integration, skills led approaches to community development,  safeguarding, workforce commissioning, commissioning qualifications, personalisation, exploring workforce wellbeing, workforce productivity and workforce outcome measurement, developing the workforce supporting people with a learning disability and autistic people, exploring workforce issues on digital working, learning, information sharing AI and robotics.

Declaration of interests

I have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: Skills for Care employee for last 14 years.

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