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Care workers dedicate their lives to the service of others. As well as supporting their clients with their basic needs, such as ensuring that they eat, drink and take their medication, care workers also support people with social and physical activities as well. For many disabled, elderly or vulnerable people in the UK care workers are a lifeline.
Care workers should always prioritise the care needs of their clients, and they have a duty to refrain from maltreatment, minimise harm, and promote good towards patients. These are referred to as the ethical responsibilities of care workers.
There are currently 1.62 million care workers in the UK, and approximately 165,000 care worker posts unfilled. As we have an increasingly ageing population, the demand for care workers will only continue to grow. And care work can be an incredibly important and rewarding job role.
But what are the ethical responsibilities of care work? How should care workers maintain the privacy of their clients and ensure that they are always treated with dignity and respect? Here’s everything you need to know:
The Significance of Ethical Responsibilities in Care Work
The responsibilities of care workers are significant. On a day-to-day basis, you can expect a care worker to provide personal care to individuals, including showering, bathing, shaving and oral hygiene. In cases where the client is able to do these things themselves, the care worker will provide support, encouragement and reminders. Care workers will also support people with mobility issues and transfers using appropriate equipment, prepare or supervise the preparation of daily meals, and support with feeding and hydration.
In addition to this, some care workers’ roles will involve supporting and administering medication, and care workers form part of a wider care team that will determine the best care plan for each patient.
Caring for others, both in a personal and professional capacity, can be a physical and mental challenge. But caring is a professional built on the importance of support and nurturing. As a result, the ethical responsibilities of care workers are vital, and these will form a foundation for high-quality care provision.
Standards of conduct, performance and ethics for care workers are clearly laid out by the Health and Care Professionals Council and state that care workers should:
- Protect and promote the interests of service users and carers
- Communicate appropriately and effectively
- Work within the limits of your knowledge and skills
- Delegate appropriately
- Respect confidentiality
- Manage risk
- Report concerns about safety
- Be open when things go wrong
- Be honest and trustworthy
- Keep records of your work
As a professional care worker, you are personally responsible for the way you behave, both in a professional and private capacity. You will need to use your judgement so that you make informed and reasonable decisions and meet the standards. You must always be prepared to justify your decisions and actions and to feel confident in each decision that you make.
Respect for Autonomy and Informed Consent
Maintaining autonomy throughout treatment, wherever possible, is important for the mental well-being of many patients in need of caring support. Autonomy is defined as the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision, and ensuring autonomy is maintained wherever possible is part of the role of the care worker. Perhaps the easiest way to promote autonomy is to provide choices: ‘Would you like me to cook soup or make a sandwich for lunch?’ for example. You are fulfilling your caring duties by ensuring you serve your patient lunch, but maintaining their autonomy by providing choices of the available meal options.
An equally important element of demonstrating respect for autonomy is gaining informed consent from care recipients wherever possible. Informed consent is essential to patient autonomy. Informed consent requires a thorough understanding of what you are asking your patient to do (take their medication for example) and the ability to convey this information to a patient in a way that they can understand it. It is then the care recipient’s decision as to whether or not they consent to this.
Individuals retain the right to determine what happens to their own bodies and respecting this is a fundamental part of good practice within care work. A health or social care professional who does not respect this principle may leave themselves open to legal action, and be perceived to have breached the ethical responsibilities of care workers.
Maintaining Confidentiality and Privacy
As a care worker, the needs of your clients and any conversations you have with them should be considered confidential and remain private. Privacy is a fundamental aspect of maintaining dignity. Having someone that you don’t know enter your home to provide care can leave you feeling vulnerable. But the commitment to confidentiality and privacy offered by care employees means that care recipients can feel safe in the knowledge that no one will intrude upon their personal space, enter their rooms or touch any of their belongings without explicit permission.
Care workers have a legal obligation to handle sensitive information with confidentiality and care. Within the care setting, whether that is a care home or the care recipients’ own home, confidences between the care worker and the patient should remain confidential, as part of good care practice. This means that the practitioner shouldn’t tell anyone what a patient has said and their details, other than those who need to know. This means that you can share relevant information with other care workers: if a care recipient shows you a wound that you feel warrants further medical attention, for example, it would not be a breach of confidentiality to discuss this with a physician.
Balancing the need for effective communication and collaboration with the requirement to maintain confidentiality can be tricky. It’s important to communicate key issues with others involved in providing care, including friends and family members, without breaching confidentiality. Clarifying with your clients what they are happy to share, and what they would rather not share, is a great way to deal with these concerns. If in doubt, seek advice before you share. In most cases, it is better to say too little than to say too much.
Promoting Dignity And Respect
When people are being cared for, it can leave them feeling very vulnerable. Always promoting dignity and respect is essential to dealing with these feelings, and ensuring that care recipients still feel that they are worthy of honour and respect.
The concept of promoting dignity and respect is a simple one. Everyone deserves to be treated as an individual and to have their needs met. When they are a recipient of care they should be cared for and treated well, and have autonomy over their own lives for as much or as long as possible. Friendships and social interactions should be encouraged, and relationships with family members maintained. Above all, recipients of care should be supported to ensure that they can lead lives that are as happy, contented, and independent as possible. This is key to delivering person-centred care.
Some of the ways that care workers can promote dignity and respect in their daily routines whilst caring for their care recipients include:
- Giving clients space and privacy when they need it.
- Giving clients the time to do things at their own pace and on their own schedule when possible.
- Ensuring that clients are never in pain, and balancing their pain management needs.
- Giving clients the opportunity to pursue social interests and ensuring that they are not lonely or alone for significant periods of time. Building relationships with friends and family members can also help to support this.
- Ensuring that the food you provide for your clients is nutritious, appetising and well-presented. Making sure they have regular access to plenty of water and other preferred beverages.
- Speaking to your clients in the way that they prefer: this could mean using their first name or using their full title.
- Show empathy. Imagine how you would feel in the same situation and treat your clients accordingly.
Upholding Equality And Non-Discrimination
Care workers have an ethical responsibility to provide care without discrimination. They should provide person-centred care and work in a non-judgmental manner. As a care worker, you should value diversity and respect the attributes that make people different. You will be supporting individuals from a range of backgrounds. One of the easiest ways to focus on equality when treating your clients is to think about them as individuals. Care plans should be personalised to reflect the likes, dislikes, personal history and beliefs of each individual. There should never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to creating a care plan, or to caring in general.
Unconscious bias has a very real impact on healthcare. Care workers may treat their clients with biases and prejudices without even being aware they exist. These unconscious biases can influence the way information about an individual is processed, lead to disparities in care, and impact healthcare goals.
Some strategies for promoting equality and inclusivity in care settings include:
- Treating patients as individuals. Think about the values and goals of each person and what they need to do to attain them.
- Ensure you understand the legislation surrounding equality and inclusivity, and that all care employees are trained to provide equal standards of care.
- Never use or tolerate bad language, sexism or racism in the workplace. Although this is often excused by perpetrators as banter, it creates a hostile and bullying environment.
- Consider equality and diversity to be core values, and focus on these whenever you are providing care.
Ensuring Safety And Well-Being
As a care worker, you have an ethical duty to ensure the safety and well-being of every care recipient that you work with. As a matter of course, everyone in the workplace should avoid any actions that could harm others, act respectfully and not cause any damage to property. If you are tidying a care recipient’s home, for example, you should ask permission before you move any items to clean around them, handle items with care, and put them back where you found them when your task is complete.
If you identify any known health and safety hazards that might affect others when you are in a client’s home then these should be reported and dealt with as soon as possible. Examples of common risks that you may find when providing care support include:
- Moving and handling care recipients. Clients often need support to be mobile, and lifting must be undertaken in certain ways. Because moving and handling can be very difficult, it is responsible for a significant proportion of accidents in health and social care.
- Medication handling. Care workers are often responsible for handling medication, and it is important to ensure that these medications are handled correctly and that doses are double-checked and issued appropriately.
- Slips and trips can occur in homes or care environments that are not properly cleaned and tidied, or when clutter is left to gather.
- Some care workers are exposed to challenging behaviour and violence or aggression from their care recipients. They should be trained to handle this and to minimise risk, but this could occasionally lead to health and safety issues.
- Finally, care recipients can be exposed to food risks in their care settings. These risks include allergies, choking, burns, and food preparation risks.
Ethical Dilemmas and Decision-Making
There are many common ethical dilemmas that care workers face in the line of their duties. Some examples of these include when patients refuse treatment, when you must ask patients or their loved ones to make life-and-death decisions, or when you are working alongside other members of a caring team that you perceive to be demonstrating incompetence.
If you are confronted with conflicting ethical principles and you need to make ethical decisions then it’s important that you seek guidance and support. Ethical dilemmas create a conflict between two courses of action that are both correct but represent different principles or values. Resolving ethical dilemmas can often mean putting your own feelings to one side and looking at a situation as objectively as possible. When clients and their families make decisions that you find difficult, your role is to process these as professionally, and smoothly as possible.
Care work is a vital and important career path. If you choose to pursue a career as a care worker, it is important that you are aware of your ethical responsibilities as well as your caring ones. Compassionate and responsible care provision is essential, particularly as the need for care provision in the UK continues to grow.
Care Workers should demonstrate an ongoing commitment to upholding the ethical principles in their field. This means respecting the wants and needs of their care recipients, maintaining their confidentiality and privacy at all times, and treating their care recipients with dignity and respect. Focusing on the ethical implications of the care sector is vital to being the very best in the care field.