10 things learnt in 10 years as a Social Worker

I qualified as a social worker in 2000. I don’t remember the exact date I started my first ‘qualified’ post. It was sometime in the early summer I think –  in those days before registration was required and all I needed to prove I was qualified was a letter from the university stating I had passed the course – of course, the certificate would take a few more months to arrive.

We were eagerly snapped up by employers with open arms. As an HR guy told me a few years later

‘Those were the days when all you had to do was stand on a street corner with your social work qualification and someone would come and employ you’

And I could see  his point. Employers – agencies and local authorities came to our university in our last month in a battle to employ us. We never realised we had it so good.

I had gained in confidence exponentially throughout the course but when I look back on my first days, weeks, months and years in practice, I realise how the initial Masters was just a starting point rather than an end in itself as far as my learning has been.

I wanted to reflect on some of the most important lessons I’ve learnt since qualification.

1. Theories matter.

It was always a little hard on placement to draw out some of the theoretical models I felt. They could seem so distant – or sometimes it felt as if we were superimposing the ‘most convenient’ theory onto the ‘common sense’ approach. That is over-simplifying but putting theory into practice was always something I struggled with initially because the pace of work seemed to see me exist from day to day patching up and making do. When I was on placement I had a gentle introduction of an uncomplicated caseload of six people. I was able to spend time with all of them and gain an understanding. In practice, I had a standard caseload between 30-40. I came down to earth with a ‘bump’

But, as I have developed ways of time management and workload management, I increasingly returned back to the theoretical bases that I learnt about at university. I have read about more as they have developed over the years. I retained a subscription to the ‘British Journal of Social Work’ and learnt that we have to have a grounding of why we do the work we do – the history of social policy and the ways to develop relationships, work within systems and organisations even though it can feel like banging our head against a collective wall at times.

Back in the day, we joked as students about our preferred ‘eclectic’ approaches. Eclectic does have value though. You just have to know which bits to pick – and we do develop favoured theoretical approaches. I’ve been just about consistent in that. I sometimes feel that there needs to be some more research in practice about developing more complex theoretical bases as the nature of the work that we do changes but that’s something for me to ponder in retirement, I suspect.

2. Confidence matters.

This is the biggest change I’ve seen in my own practice. Some days I feel like a bit of a fraud and wonder if I know what I’m doing. I don’t think that will ever go away – but more and more I am able to trust the judgements I make as I refer to experience and different situations I have been in. I remember when I was first asked to do the ASW (Approved Social Worker – now changed to Approved Mental Health Professional) training. I hadn’t particularly wanted to but the service needs required more ASWs. I was reluctant due to the authoritative, control aspect of the role and I’m really a rather woolly liberal at heart.

I wanted to study though. I really wanted to know more about mental health work in general and the Mental Health Act in particular. I like learning and having the opportunity to learn, understand and study at a higher level was too appealing. I tried not to think about the actual assessments too much as I didn’t really like the idea of making decisions about detaining people compulsorily.

Then, during the course, I realised. My power was as much about preventing inappropriate detentions as making applications when they are necessary. I can stop a detention when I have two medical recommendations in my hand but I can’t apply when I don’t. The quality of the increased knowledge base built my confidence. Often it comes with knowledge both formally taught/read/discussed and informal experiential ‘knowledge’.

I have more confidence in my own judgement now. That makes practice more straightforward. I also know my own fallibility and go back to study and learn more independently.

3. Power matters.

Again, reaching into my fluffy liberal side, I talk about ‘strengths models’ and working in a ‘person-centred’ way but there’s no escaping the power role I have as an agent of the state. We like to talk about ‘working together’ but my statutory role and my role as ‘expert’ in the way the organisation (being the local authority) works put me in a powerful position vis-a-vis service users and sometimes other professionals.

I tended to shirk the idea of power. It doesn’t naturally sit comfortably with me. But I have become more aware of it and I think that makes me a better practitioner. As much as we try to pretend there is an equality, we can potentially do a disservice to those for whom we work.  Power doesn’t have to be bad, but we have to be aware of it.

4. Advocacy matters.

This is an extension of the ‘power’ issue. We are placed within an organisation that has many pulls on its time and money. Sometimes it is not easy to give a voice to those for whom we work – especially if we ‘go native’ within the large organisation or have difficulties personally with particular managers but it is important that our voices are not lost, even if it feels sometimes that we are shouting into the wind.  We need to best present those for whom we are guided to work with and sometimes that means challenging systems we work with, especially if they are discriminatory – institutional oppression is alive and well and is best combated ‘from the inside’.

We also need to advocate for ourselves, our profession and people who may need to use our services. Against inadequate management procedures, against chipping away of professional roles.

One of the reasons that union membership is important.

5. Honesty matters.

Honesty to an extent at any rate. When I was in my first placement  I learnt a lesson from my practice teacher who told me never to promise what I couldn’t guarantee that I would be able to deliver. If anything, under-promise. I  have extended that a little to being as honest as I can with service users and with other professionals and colleagues. I don’t assume I know what the organisational response will be to a proposed care package until it has been agreed by those with funding responsibility. I can take a good guess, knowing my managers and the eligibility criteria pretty well  but sometimes they can change or someone can challenge.

When I go to do a community care assessment or, as happens now, validate a Self-Assessment Questionnaire, I don’t promise anything at all initially. I will probably discuss options but until I have a guaranteed budget in my hand or a guaranteed service promised, I will try to talk very vaguely about potential options, making it clear that the decisions often lie outside my power to grant. Which is true. I hold no budget myself. I can only make recommendations and advocate strongly. Which I do. Which I try to do.

Trust requires honesty. Phoning when you say you will. Turning up when you say you will.

6. Punctuality matters.

It is one of the very basic courtesies we are often judged on. When I first qualified I was appalled by how lackadaisical some of my new colleagues were about time-keeping and keeping to appointments. I think it often sets up a relationship. Of course, I am far from perfect. I am also on a couple of duty rotas including AMHP and BIA work as well as holding a full caseload.

More often than not when I cancel or postpone, it is because I have to carry out a Mental Health Act Assessment or deal with some kind of crisis in my own caseload. I am not able to clear my diary for the week that I am on the AMHP rota just because I am on the rota very frequently. I still hate cancelling. I hate being late but I do always phone when I am running more than about 5 minutes later.

I’m far from perfect. The nature of the role is that sometimes I have to be in two or three places at once but I do try to pay attention to the timings because I feel it denoted an element of respect and can be important in minimising some of the power differential. Lateness sends signals that can be hard to explain away..

7. Limits matter.

This was a big one for me.  You come into the job all fresh and excited about the difference you are going to make in peoples’ lives. You are going to change the world. Make a difference. Help people to understand and come to terms with challenges. Sometimes though, you can’t help. You try and you go through the processes necessary but there is just nothing there that you can do. It might be about so-called ‘unwise decisions’ made by capacitous adults – it might be that the criteria and/or budgets don’t allow for it. Sometimes the decisions you have to  make are grounded in organisational policy rather than your own professional judgement. Sometimes I wish I had a budget I could spend.

An ex-manager once told me (when I was having a particularly stressful time of it) to think logically about separating ‘the things you can change’ from ‘the things you cannot change’ and not to worry about the second category as long as you do your absolute best with the first category – sometimes there is nothing you can do. That’s a big challenge.

It didn’t stop me having difficulty sleeping a couple of months ago when I was concerned about one particular individual and their ‘unwise decision’ but it helps me to rationalise my own role in the troubling situations and circumstances that I do see.

8. Discrimination matters.

I work with a wide range of people of different backgrounds and social classes. I enjoy that aspect of my work. As I hear and understand the backgrounds and life histories, I can see the effects of different attitudes and the way that people are regarded and the ways that has shaped lives.

The impact of poverty is one of the underlying issues that hits me from time to time and the utter inequity of the way we live in this country. I have advantages of birth that were not enjoyed by a lot of the people I work with. I can try and discount that but it doesn’t go away.

People do not ‘deserve’ poverty. Society creates enormous inequalities. It is hard to distance yourself sometimes but it’s about boundaries. I wonder if I have become a bit hardened to some of the situations I see but I try to use fresh eyes with each file that (virtually at least) lands on my desk. Sometimes though, what we see and the way we see people and the lives that they have created through enormous difficulties gives me a sense of pride in this country and this city that I don’t think I would ever have if I had joined a different kind of profession.

I see the effects of poverty pretty much on a day by day basis. It makes me so grateful for what I have.

It isn’t just poverty of course that divides but race, class, disability, gender and any number of less obvious forms of discrimination. The learning on paper is very different from the learning in practice but no less important. We cannot remove the glasses through which we see society but we can be aware of the particular tint and hue that they have and through which we see our realities.

My experiences of practice have changed some of the hues and tints but they have not removed them.

9. Humility matters.

I have previously stated that one of my power bases is that I am an ‘expert’ in the ways some of the local authority criteria and organisation functions. I can never be an ‘expert’ in someone else’s life though. I absolutely need to remember that accordingly. Sometimes I tell people what to do. That is a part of my statutory role. I don’t particularly enjoy it but I can’t pretend it doesn’t happen and that all the work I do is consensual. It isn’t. But it is important to listen and not just to a person but to the important people in their networks – family, friends, neighbours and remember that I will be flitting in and out of this persons’ life but others will remain.

10. Reflection matters.

One of the old staples from my course has almost come back to haunt me but I think it is an absolute vital part of my practice and my professional development. I feel that if I stopped the reflection, I would stop learning about myself and the ways that I work and there would be nothing more dangerous to me as a practitioner.  I need to learn continually about why I work in the way I do. What made me choose or avoid a particular piece of work? What are the things I most enjoy and dislike about the work I do? How have my experiences informed my practice and what makes me feel that I am better able to practice now than I was 10 years ago? Am I better now? Have I lost any of the exuberance and freshness? When is the best time to move on to another job?

It helps me to write things down which is how I came upon writing this blog for the first time  in November 2007. Just writing this post has helped me learn, develop, quantify and appreciate the experience. That is reflection.

And so to the next 10 years of practice. I expect social work will be a very different profession in 10 years time, if it still exists in its current form. I think that is the next battle to be had. I don’t intend giving up on it quite yet.

21 thoughts on “10 things learnt in 10 years as a Social Worker

  1. I qualified in the same year as you and, as always, your reflections are bang on. I too under-promise, try to be on time, try to manage my time, care for my patients and generall try to work hard to make their lives better. It’s hard work but it is a great job!

  2. That was really interesting. Thank you for sharing it. In a way, it reminded me of the council applications that I have feverishly been working on – I think you wrote nearly as much as I did for Bexley!

  3. Wow…. What a useful post! As a 1st MA Social Work student in Plymouth, I usually find your words inspiring & interesting but this post is so insightful. I am currently struggling to grasp the finer points of ‘contemporary social theory’ & to understand how & why they connect to real social work practice, but after reading this I will be making a stronger effort to figure things out. Thank you!

  4. What a fantastic post. Thanks for sharing your reflections, and I would like to borrow your idea (with a link, of course) if it’s okay. I think every new social worker (and many of us who have been around a while) should read this!

  5. Thanks all for the great responses 🙂

    Jen – good luck 🙂
    Jae Ran – of course, that’s fine 🙂

  6. Sorry to be a little slow off the mark in getting round to catching up with you. I think your list is pretty comprehensive, and reminds me that one of the activities that often gets squeezed is reflection…or put more bluntly “thinking about things” – what works, and why; and what didn’t work and some of the possible reasons for that….
    In thinking about managing (oneself or others) I developed the slightly frivolous pnemonic: LASH
    Luck – sometime things fall into place (or not) becue you are in the right place at the right time;
    Art – it’s not only what you know or do, it’s how you do it;
    Science – there are things we need to know in order to be effective – call this theory if you like, but it may also be about facts;
    Humility – being prepare to seek advice, say you don’t know, or that you’ve got something wrong and to ask others for help in cracking it.

  7. What a great post. Although I’m far from 10 years as a social worker, I have been in the field for a long while and a lot of this really applies…especially to the work that I do now. Thank you. 🙂

  8. Hi there
    I work in mental health advocacy and I’d really like to use this in training with social workers – would you be up for that? Please feel free to email me! Fantastic post – really applies in so many jobs.

  9. Karren – Thanks 🙂
    Les – I love that LASH – works very well and more succinct 🙂
    antiSWer – thanks a lot and thanks for the link!
    Naomi – feel free – just reference the site if you use it on anything – if that’s ok (I mean, I won’t come after you if you don’t.. !)

  10. What a thorough expose of what it really means to be a social worker. If #8 isn’t a reason to drop-you-to-your-knees, I don’t know what is… you’re so right–nobody deserves poverty.

    Love your core values, and look forward to reading more.

  11. “a profession which promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-beings…Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work”

    International Federation of Social Workers (2001)

    The use and abuse of power, both on an individual and organisational level is definately at the core of social work . It is therefore important to ensure we do not become isolated in our practice either as groups or individuals.

    The need to develop group strategies to influence the current social/cultural/political developments has never been greater. Unity equals strenght. Goverments have spent a great deal of effort over recent decades dismantling the profession and splitting it into increasingly fragmented specialisms.

  12. Thank you for sharing a comprehensive and insightful perspective on what it means to be a social worker. The realities of practice and the significance of social work training was presented thoughtfully and honestly. You offered a dialogue here that speaks universally. I teach social work as an adjunct at an university in New York City. This article has already been posted to all of my students.

  13. Thanks so much – would you like to hear if there’s any feedback? Have made a snazzy handout with your blog address and logo 🙂

  14. Daniel – I agree – that’s why I sneaked the link in about unionisation being important. I’ve been to a SWAN meeting and wholeheartedly support the aims and objectives. We need to fight a bit harder, it’s just that sometimes work gets in the way!
    Mary – thanks, I feel very flattered.

    Naomi – sure, that would be nice 🙂 And thank you, again, I feel very flattered 🙂

  15. Thank you for putting into words so many things that have been on my mind! This is great. I especially appreciate “confidence matters.” This is particularly hard for me–to accept that I know what I’m doing and have something to offer people. I have to remind myself of this a great deal, and remind myself that my clients need to see this as well! Great post.

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