Can you be too friendly in a work context? Should you be allowed to "friend" or not to "friend"? These were questions raised by the Nursing and Midwifery Council a couple of weeks ago, after they issued new guidance on midwives and nurses using social networking sites and mixing personal and private relationships online.

Staff were also told they should avoid discussing work or colleagues online, else risk being struck off.

But was this a much needed move by the NMC to ensure guidelines are adhered to, or was it, as some critics argue, a case of them meddling a step too far into the private lives of their staff?

It's a murky area - and perhaps in light of recent cases, in need of clarification.

In the intervening fortnight, we ran a poll on the JFHC website to ascertain feeling about the guidelines. The majority (77 per cent) of nurses and midwives still believed they should be allowed to use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

While we have no doubt that they should be able to do so, we also concede that by issuing the guidelines, the NMC has reminded staff to be aware of how they conduct themselves online and maintain a high standard of professionalism at all times.

Yet, no matter how well intentioned the NMC's guidelines were - especially when it comes to protecting their staff - they should also trust colleagues to make the right decisions and know where their professional and personal boundaries lie.

A recent case where a psychiatric nurse in Somerset was struck off for conducting an inappropriate relationship with a former patient started from initial Facebook contact, and highlights how an error of judgement can ruin a career.

Indeed, even a seemingly simple message on a social networking site can be easily misconstrued and makes such errors far easier.

However, with a guesstimated 355,000 nurses and midwives using Facebook, the NMC needs to be realistic and realise that policing the behaviour of staff is far harder than it has ever been before.

Our thinking is that the news of the guidelines perhaps serves as a timely reminder of the delicate balance between professional/personal boundaries and the risks of errors of judgement in crossing them, more than a draconian publication of guidelines.

The irony however, is that those who fall foul of the guidelines and end up in the press will still serve to be much more of a significant warning than both…

Written by Robert Mair on 3.8.11 Comment on this blog by sending it to: penny.hosie@pavpub.com