Karen Nelson

Recipient: March 2013  

It is clear from the very first moment in her presence that Karen Nelson is a dynamic and vibrant social work leader: "I am energized by the extraordinary work of my staff and I am driven to create the best possible place for them to practice and flourish as social workers." Karen Nelson, MSW, RSW, MBA, is the Chief of Social Work at The Ottawa Hospital, where she is also Director of Spiritual Care and Clinical Director of Transitional Care.  In addition, she is an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University School of Social Work.   She is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 4-10, 2013, under the theme: "Restoring Hope - The Power of Social Work".  

Karen notes the importance of appreciating that some of the key reasons patients and families fail to reach optimal health outcomes lie in their social environment. She makes the point: "Although there is considerable research indicating that it is often the social determinants that influence health care outcomes, politicians, lawmakers and bureaucrats resist the notion that social workers are the key profession to address these issues.  If this were ever to happen, it would be a game changer for social work!"

It is Karen's conviction that the concept of the Social Determinants of Health demonstrates why social workers must have a major role within the health care realm: "It gives legitimacy to what we are doing because of the research supporting it and it highlights the fit between the non-medical needs of patients and the skills and knowledge of social workers.  The SDOH serve as the foundation for our assessments, the framework for our charting and the rationale for our interventions." She adds: "It has been interesting to see other disciplines identify the importance of the SDOH recently.  Sadly, many other disciplines do not see the immediate connection between the SDOH and the work of social workers.  It is our duty to make this linkage known to our interprofessional team members as well as health care funders and administrators." In teaching courses in social work in health care both in Alberta and Ontario, Karen has been struck by how much social work theory and research supported the practice with which she is so familiar. She reports: "Being able to relate theory to practice is one of the things the students enjoy most about the course."

Karen has drawn from a number of social work values during her career: "Our ability to stay focussed on the person and always respect their right to make their own decisions is something that differentiates social workers from some other professions.  Our ability to support client autonomy and our tenacity in advocating on their behalf are our trademarks. The values of fairness and equity are very important to me. The embracing of these values can come with a cost, as it may require taking positions which are different from those on the care team."

In reviewing her career, Karen reminds us that we all face challenges and barriers and that what is key is how one overcomes them: "Although I set my sights on a career in social work from the time I finished high school, it was not the only profession I was interested in.  After 5 years of practising as a social worker post-MSW, I applied to medical school hoping to be able to help others in a different way.  Many people think that those who are perceived as successful have never experienced rejection but I was twice rejected by Med School and twice "pink-slipped" in organizations to which I was very committed. I have learned to try to see the big picture."   

One of the biggest challenges in Karen's career has been the fact that her spouse has been in a line of work that has required her family to move frequently across Canada and abroad, which meant repeated job interruptions: "This was, in hindsight, a great opportunity because I had the chance to practise social work in many different parts of Canada and the world. What I have learned from these experiences is to be open to new challenges and new opportunities and to have confidence to take on new assignments. It was a tremendous challenge for me to return to school to obtain an MBA degree with a younger and technologically savvy cohort of students. Taking that risk helped me continue to develop as a learning and growing individual, and gave me new perspectives on social work and leadership." 

Karen's passion for the social work profession is clearly manifested in her work. She indicates:  "My passion for social work is fuelled by the response of patients and clients who are able to change and develop the skills and confidence necessary to live a more fulfilled life or cope with very challenging situations." She also expresses how proud she is of the departments she leads at the Ottawa Hospital: "I am proud of the calibre of staff that we employ. I am inspired by the exceptional work that they do each day and I am thrilled when I see them working well together, supporting each other and striving to provide exemplary care to patients and families."  

When asked about the essential attributes of professional/inspirational leaders, she replies: "I am a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University where their mission is to "Inspire Lives of Leadership and Purpose".  This aptly describes the education and formation I received during my BA and MSW studies there.  A leader is the person who has the "view from the balcony", identifying what lies ahead and assisting those following to prepare.  A recent article in The Economist suggested that if there is a "secret sauce" to leadership, it is probably humility.  Leaders cannot succeed without followers, and a good leader recognizes and acknowledges that it is those doing the work who are actually responsible for the success of the initiative. A leader in the field of Social Work serves others by selecting, engaging and developing high- performing staff and taking every opportunity to let others know about the power of social work." 

Karen Nelson is an inspirational leader in the social work community - passionate, always open to new challenges, humble.  During Social Work Week, March 4-10, 2013, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.