Of Pride and Social Work

I have attended a number of meetings and training events recently that have been either borough-wide across social workers in many different teams or across different boroughs. These events have put me into contact with a lot of other social workers I wouldn’t otherwise have met  – in my office there are three others, one of whom is my manager.

At one of the events, I was the least experienced by about a decade (and I’ve been qualified for 10 years myself). All the other participants had been working in the field or in management for 20/30 years, some were recently retired or about to. They bemoaned the state of social work in general and how difficult things had become, how paperwork was overwhelming and face to face contact was not given the priority that the job deserves. When it was my chance to ‘introduce’ myself, I expressed surprise at some of the negativity because I’m fortunate to be in a position where I enjoy my job and perhaps despite some of the endless reorganisations and reconfigurations, the positives far outweigh the negatives. It is very easy to revert to the ‘wasn’t like that in MY day’ type rhetoric.

Another training course and a different group of people. Again, we were talking about social work and being a social worker in quite general terms by means of an introduction. The facilitator said that she felt it was so sad that no-one was proud of being a social worker anymore and that people didn’t tell others their job for fear of a poor response.

Participants nodded sagely and sadly.

I was confused. I have never not told someone I’m a social worker and am immensely proud of my job and my profession. Is that really so unusual? I didn’t think it was, especially. Maybe it’s the friends I mix with..

Processing these thoughts, I figured if we are so negative ourselves and show no sense of pride, is it any wonder the contempt that we are able to be held in more widely?

Yes, there is a media agenda and the government won’t get much political capital from pushing money or praise into social work but surely self-pride, respect and strength is what emanates outwards?

Personally, I think there is an overemphasis on ‘status’ and being ‘considered professional’ which reeks of self-indulgence and lack of confidence. It is almost like the profession is trying to look for reassurances from the ‘general public’, the ‘press’, other ‘professions’, in order to put ourselves on a par.

But often respect is as respect does. Yes, we have had to deal with some rather bizarre chopping and changing to regulation/training/function over the last decade or so – but sometimes we, as a profession, don’t always help ourselves.

We can look jealously at the esteem that other professions may be held in but that doesn’t mean we must expect automatically that the professional title we hold will be enough to garner that respect.

Professional independence doesn’t always have to be granted, sometimes it needs to be claimed.

We are in a precarious position at the moment. Local government is shrinking. Anyone who thinks social care or social work is exempt from the forthcoming cuts is living in an illusionary world.

The Guardian is reporting that Suffolk County Council are about to outsource virtually all their jobs and services

A few neighbouring boroughs in London have been looking at sourcing joint services between them which is an obvious way to reduce staffing costs.

A good social worker is and needs to be an advocate in a broad sense – for the people that the service is intended to serve.

A good social worker is a confident social worker.

Is being proud such a rarity in the UK that the matter was brought up again and again to me in various ways and means? Maybe.

I sometimes have waves of negativity. I have no doubt it is evident in my writing. I get angry at some politician or journalist who might show an extreme lack of knowledge in the sector or the environment. When I get into one of those fixes, I find the best thing is for me to recall why I wanted to be a social worker and what I love, not just about being a social worker but about my job in particular.

I wanted to fight societal injustice and still do. Social services are entrenched in social policy and social policy adapts quickly. We have to be able to think on our feet and think independently. Perhaps some of that independent thought has been ‘managed’ out of some of us by an encroachment of Performance Indicators and constant outcomes measurements.

Of course these need to be done because there has to be some measure of efficiency. Most people can probably think of a few in any office who might be less inclined to hard work than others. The ends cannot however, justify the means.

A good social worker is compassionate, competent and confident. Compassion without competence or confidence will not be enough. Competence without compassion is not enough. There is a need to actually care about individuals and the results of interventions. That doesn’t mean we have to like the people we work with but we have to offer an equitable service regardless of personal feelings and opinions.

Compassion and competence without confidence may result in being led by potentially poor management.

How are these skills developed? Not just through university courses but by good examples and good supervision in practice. A confident and competent manager will, as often as not,  have confident and competent staff.

So to anyone thinking about the profession who might be put up by the malaise of negativity that sometimes engulfs us, don’t be.

There is a lot of work to be done still. There are a lot of inequitable systems that need to be fought and they can be fought from within, indeed, they need to be.

10 thoughts on “Of Pride and Social Work

  1. I completely agree with you. I have just qualified (fresh out of the starting block!) and managed to land a position as a supervising social worker. I LOVE MY JOB SO MUCH! I tell my boss that during every supervision we have. I love it so much!

    However, the people I work with are now disillusioned by job cuts and union problems. They’ve lost all motivation and drive for the work. I spend a lot of my day chasing people who just haven’t bothered to do very simple things. They don’t see why they should half the time, very frustrating.

    I had one colleague say to me the other day – “I haven’t been on training for over 5 years, I don’t see why I should! I’ve got 27 years experience and YOU CAN’T TEACH THAT.” I just nodded and smiled. Geez.

  2. Great post, and very timely given a few comments I have read on the comm care forums recently, especially from some of the people there who have years of experience and never miss an opportunity to remind the rest of us how dreadful things are now! As someone who has made some big sacrifices in committing to the SW training it is good to hear a more positive take on things. I remain very passionate about my decision to join the profession and maintain every hope that I’ll still be as passionate once I’m a few years into the job.

  3. Hi CB,

    I for one know precisely what you mean. As a trainer I regularly meet participants from a range of professional groups including social workers, nurses, Occupational therapists and doctors. Each profession has its own gripes and everyone can point to examples of colleagues who were mistreated in some way or another. But social workers tend to go for ‘special pleading’ more than any other group. It’s as though they think that theirs is the only profession that gets criticised when things go wrong and that they are the only workers ever to get a raw deal.

    The reality, of course, is that every one of those groups has reason to gripe. In very general (stereotypical) terms…

    Nurses think doctors will scapegoat them at every given opportunity.
    Doctors think that nurses expect them to take responsibility when the nurse messes up.
    OTs think that nobody but them understands what reablement means etc etc etc.

    I have some sympathy with all of these general positions. They’re borne out of professional experience and the various ideological positioning and spheres of responsibility that the different professionals are thrown toward.
    So there is some reality there and also some truth in the notion that the press will jump upon social workers when things go wrong. But they also jump upon doctors and nurses. The response to Baby Peter’s death is a prime example of that but even then it wasn’t just social workers who carried the can.

    I think the thing that irks me most is not that there are professional gripes – they are inevitable and often justified. It’s the notion that only social workers have huge caseloads and only social workers get criticised when things go wrong. Try being a staff nurse on an acute psych ward or a doctor in an A&E dept. Try being an unqualified support worker in social care for that matter. And yet, generally speaking these other workers tend to remain positive and enthusiastic.

    Social workers are an extremely valuable (actually I’d argue vital) part of the multi-disciplinary team but they’re not special and they don’t deserve special consideration for having to deal with the same pressures as everyone else. In my view the culture of social work is one that devalues itself and its members. Social workers seem to have become so convinced of their specialness that they inevitable become disheartened when the world treats them just like everybody else. The more special you think yourself to be the more you’ll be disappointed when the world at large disagrees.

    This is such a pity because social workers really are important and valuable – but no more so than doctors, nurses or support workers.



  4. I have written a good deal about social workers being insecure and loving to complain in my own blog. For what it’s worth, I did just write a bit of a rant about people using the term “social worker” for non-social workers, but overall I agree with and like what you’re saying.

    I remember a friend of my mother telling me how proud she was to be a social worker when I was in social work school, and what an impact that had on me. I am proud to be a social worker. I’m proud of what we do and of our history. I don’t always love my job, and I definitely complain about it, but I’m always happy to be a social worker.

  5. Thanks for the comments
    SSW – urgh to that comment about 27 years of experience. That says a lot to be honest. I wonder what the GSCC would say though about the lack of training…

    Hound – I hope you don’t feel too disheartened, it isn’t as bad as some forum posts might have you believe and it’s possible to be enthusiastic after years of practice! Of course, I like a good grumble as much as anyone but I wouldn’t want to seriously do anything else!

    Stuart – I absolutely agree. I think that social workers need to earn respect and not necessarily expect it as a matter of course. I have learnt so much working in a multi-disciplinary team and really do think everyone should try it because the way I get respect as a social worker in that team (and I really do) is by getting on with my job, doing it well and pushing the values that social work demands. I think social workers sometimes have a bit of an inferiority complex but if we get on with our job and stop worrying about what others think of us, I think we’ll do much better in the ‘respect’ stakes all round!

    SocialJerk (love the name!) – thanks for popping by. I love the international perspectives. British Social Workers are very good at moaning and it does us all good to remember why we do this job and why we enjoy it! I always say (to the point of boring everyone around me!) that I didn’t go into social work to be loved or put up on a pedestal and have people thank me.. Respect is good when it comes but we do need to earn it and sometimes have to work a bit harder for it to be earnt..

  6. Here’s a question… with all the cuts to social work and proposed layoffs and mergers, is it a wise choice for students to enroll in social work training programs? Perhaps this profession that is seemingly in demand is, in reality, not a guaranteed job. I know that there is need for social work, but how does that need translate to real life? Is this something that is deterring young people from entering the profession?

  7. Hi Jen
    I think yes, there is a call for social workers or rather good social workers and there will continue to be so – I would hope there is never such a thing as a guaranteed job though as there needs to be a sifting through of those who are qualified and those who are good at what they do. My opinion is there will always be jobs for good social workers even and especially those who are newly qualified.
    The universities have proved not always very effective at screening applicants and there is a high drop out rate for the course so many more enter the training than become and practice as social workers.
    I would not deter anyone from entering the profession simply because I love this job. I hate some aspects of it and some days I feel super stressed but honestly, I wouldn’t want to do anything else!

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  9. I’m not a social worker, but everything you say here seems sound to me.

    I was particularly struck by the comment ‘Professional independence doesn’t always have to be granted, sometimes it needs to be claimed’ – absolutely. And if social workers, like any other profession, don’t respect their own competence and skill no one else is going to respect it either…

  10. Thanks for that Jon. I think sometimes we are our own worst enemies and the self-pitying wails that are emitted sometimes really do nothing to help our cause 🙂

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