Social Media is the New Watercooler

June 9, 2018

Venting is a normal—and arguably healthy—aspect of any personal or professional frustrations. With social media replacing the space traditionally held by water coolers, professionals need to keep themselves in check and understand that instead of a handful of colleagues, the whole world is listening in, significantly elevating the risk and consequences.

These consequences were brought to the national stage when a nurse was fined $26,000 by the Saskatchewan Registered Nurses’ Association (SRNA) for professional misconduct relating to a Facebook post she wrote in 2015 criticizing frontline staff at a hospital in Macklin, Saskatchewan.

The fine was appealed but dismissed by the courts. A Go Fund Me campaign was created raising $27,000 to cover the nurse’s fine.

According to Johanna Ward, a communications professional studying social media and confidentiality, this is not an issue isolated within healthcare. Within the 46 state regulatory boards in the United States, there are currently 35 open cases relating to breaches of confidentiality—more than half of which involve social media.

Ward identifies the following five primary reasons for the rise of inappropriate professional behaviour on social media:

  1. The blurring of professional and personal lives. People have access to their smartphones and social media accounts at all hours of the day and are more likely to publish unprofessional remarks on their public accounts.
  2. Lack of understanding of technology and the implications of their posts. When frustrated, the easiest way for many people blow off some steam is by venting, and social media is the new water cooler. This need for instant gratification leads people to make rash decisions they might not normally.
  3. Cultures of silence. Talking to a colleague about their social media behaviour is uncomfortable and many professionals feel it is “not their job” to hold their peers to account.
  4. Erosion of professionalism and trust. Access to social media is causing people to drift away from acceptable standards of performance or behaviours. All practitioners must be vigilant about their online behaviour and remarks, especially those in regulated professions as they are held to a higher standard in the eyes of the public.
  5. A lack of safe spaces. There is a growing paucity of safe spaces—like the watercooler—for people to air their grievances and frustrations. For many, work is becoming increasingly more demanding and isolating, and social media is the only means of release.

The issue at the Saskatchewan hospital, and the recent Peel School Board incident, are among the myriad examples of why all organizations—regulated, private, not-for-profit—can benefit from social media training and education, in addition to increased access to safe spaces for airing frustrations.

It also demonstrates the need for personal restraint in an era of instant gratification and increased access to safe spaces—offline or through intranet—to take the place of the watercooler.