What I’ve learnt about Social Work


A couple of ‘anniversaries’ have come up recently for me. It’s six years since I published my first post on this blog. It’s one year since I left my social work job. These milestones have caused me to reflect on the nature of the profession and the sector that I work in in a number of ways.  I read my first post yesterday and it drew me back to why I started writing in the first place. I’d tried writing blogs before this one. I wrote a stupid little diary as an angst-ridden teen which was much more interesting when I looked back on it than while I was writing it. I made a conscious effort here though, to write about social work and social care.

Over the years, writing and publishing posts has helped me in ways I can’t begin to elucidate but I’m going to try. I’ve written about social work and social media many many times but in looking back over the six years and learning more as the conversations grow and develop, I’m going to indulge myself again and share some of the things I believe that writing here has changed and shaped my perception of the career I chose.

What I’ve learnt about social work by writing about it.

I never really ‘expected’ a career in social care when I started working in the sector. I didn’t know what I expected to be honest – possibly because I didn’t ‘expect’ very much. In all honesty, I was grateful to have a job that didn’t involve me having to work in a shop or an office. I was grateful that I could be paid to do something that I actually enjoyed doing. My expectations weren’t exactly stellar but I never really thought about ‘career’. That wasn’t for people like me. I’ve written a few times about how I moved from a support worker in residential care to a social work student and then a social worker. It wasn’t something I was planning or expecting but a happy coincidence. My first job after I qualified was busy and I constantly felt incompetent or that I should be doing something different or better – most of the times, I was probably right. My manager at that time ranks as one of the worst I’ve had. She was, quite frankly, a bully. I didn’t bear the brunt of it though. I kept my head down, did as I was told and relied a lot on the support from older and more experienced colleagues.

I went away, returned to social work and new legislation, procedures in a much better place. When I started writing this blog, I was finishing my ASW training. In the borough I worked in, we completed the training ‘full time’ with placements in other teams. I’d moved from adult social work into mental health social work for a few years and the ASW training was the logical next step. The service needed more ASWs. I wasn’t actually too keen. I remember a conversation I had with the service manager at the time when he told me that it would probably be the last opportunity I would get (I was on the last ASW training) before the rush of nurses and OTs and the shift towards AMHP training. Last chances. They can be quite a pull. I was struggling at work too for various reasons and to be brutally honest, welcomed the idea of taking some time out to do more training. I didn’t really think too much of the thought of what it would mean in the long run.

The course was the best I’ve ever done. Far surpassed my initial social work training in terms of quality of teaching, level of understanding, support and knowledge gained. I started writing here as my thoughts moved towards returning to work and a job I wasn’t sure I was even very good at. I’d had time out to study and I’d enjoyed it and I was worried about going back to the day to day ‘grind’ and becoming jaded. The ASW training lifted all the lingering inertia out of me. I wanted to do well. I wanted to learn. I was sad that the learning was coming to an end. So I started writing.

After the first few months, I forced myself to write something every day (giving myself weekends off). I wrote a post before work religiously for a number of years. Yes, the quality varies massively – but it forced me to find things of interest either in the news, from work or from my ‘outside work’ life to trigger. Some posts were longer than others, some more interesting than others. It was a good discipline, looking back and I don’t think I could return to it.

It taught me much more about the profession – I’d thought in terms of myself as a ‘adult social worker’ or a ‘mental health social worker’ but I hadn’t really thought about ‘social work’ per se because the work and the culture in childrens services, as I saw it, was so very different.

Then people seemed to be interested in what I was writing and I saw it was an opportunity to ‘sell’ social work. I explored for myself what being a social worker meant to me. I’ve been through the tunnel and out the other side with it to be honest. I’ve had, as we all do, those good and bad days. By writing I was able to share some of that. I was able to better reflect on what I was doing on a day to day basis and how it fit back in the profession as a whole more than my own little part of it.

As I wrote, I learnt how proud I was to be a social worker. That was something quite new for me. We joked about it but I didn’t realise, until I was writing for an ‘external’ audience, how important it was to me to represent the good work that is being done, by good people – often unnoticed – in the sector.

The blog also gave me a voice. I’ve made an issue of the fact that I’ve never been a manager. I was able to tell people who would never otherwise have listened, what it was like to work in the field and to have changes happening around you when there was no thought or consideration given to the experiences or voices from the ‘coal face’.

I was, and still am, amazed that people listened to me. Me. I’m not anything or anyone special. I don’t have any particular professional status. I haven’t written reams of peer-reviewed papers. But people seemed to read, listen and respond to me. That helped my confidence as an individual and as a practitioner enormously. So this blog and the other things I’ve written over the years, have given me confidence and have helped me to reflect on what it is to be a social worker, what it is to work in social care – and health services – and to realise that I could use my voice in different ways, even if I couldn’t always say things to my managers or in the Trust or local authority I worked in, someone, somewhere might listen and make things better in some ways.

I learnt a lot from blogs and comments from people who use social work and social care services particularly. I could never have the same interactions with people I worked with on a day to day basis because however pleasant and approachable I think I am, there is an undeniable power that I had in my statutory role. Reading about how people feel when they are detained under the Mental Health Act or have treatment forced on them, is an insight which – while hoping I was always sensitive – I could not get from other sources. Listening to how people felt when they experience crappy social workers or crappy carers or crappy systems, reinvigorated me to stop feeling so powerless in relation to the organisations which I worked in and realise the immense power I have in other people’s lives and to make sure I used it well. I may not be able to help those who have experienced the worst of statutory powers but my growing awareness of the impact would, I hope, help those who crossed my path.

Ultimately, and ironically, writing about social work, understanding its important and having more confidence in my own voice and opinions is what led to me having the confidence to leave it behind me. Isn’t life funny.

What I’ve learnt about social work since leaving it

I’ve written  my ‘goodbye’ piece to my Trust and local authority so won’t go over that ground again. It’s been an interesting year as I’ve left behind  a specific ‘social work’ job and moved into a job that doesn’t require a professional registration. In some ways, it’s solidified my determination to identify and pretend I’m still a ‘social worker’. It’s also though, allowed me to see the profession ‘from the outside’. When people meet me now, they don’t necessarily know what my professional background is so I have heard some interesting perceptions about social workers and can distance myself when I choose to.

A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting with various people from various places. When we drew to a close and had that brief chat before we headed off in our separate directions – we were talking about some of the difficult situations that had arisen. The person sitting opposite me said “You should try being a social worker”. In the skip of a heartbeat, I responded “I am… I mean, I was.. er.. I’m still registered”. Then I realised, coldly, that of course, no one in that room apart from me knew that. That was an odd feeling. I had, so long, identified as a social worker than having it not be either immediately obvious or relevant was another step away for me.

I get pangs of wanting to go back. Particularly, I miss some of the day to day work with people that I don’t get now. Then I try to remember what it was like, last summer, when the cuts bit hard and the stress levels were enormous. I’m happy where I am now, really I am but it’s not quite the same as sitting in someone’s front room – building a relationship with them and their family – and being ‘there’ to help see through some of the complications of ‘services’ to make things work out a bit better. Or meeting someone in hospital – or when you rock up to carry out an assessment and being able to follow it up through discharge to a better place. I have to admit i’ve occasionally glanced at social work jobs just to see if they tempt me back. I wouldn’t say ‘never’ but the longer I am away from the ‘coal face’ the harder, I think, it will be to go back. Maybe I’m kidding myself into thinking I will. I need to have that comfort blanket of believing that if I applied for my old job tomorrow, I’d be able to slot back into it.

I’ve learnt that social work is about so much more than local authority social work or social work within the NHS. I knew this, theoretically, of course – but now, as one of the ‘outsiders’ I see how important it is that social work doesn’t become pigeon-holed into only meeting statutory social work with a job title that includes ‘social worker’ in it.

I am using all the skills I gained through my training and my experience in my current job. Being a social worker, I believe, with my knowledge of assessment processes, experience, use of legislation and value base make me able to to what I do. Could someone without that do it as well? Yes, they can and they do – sometimes far better – but for me, it’s a good fit.

I now have a little distance from the profession which allows me to cast a more critical eye too. I was incredibly frustrated by the battles between BASW and the nascent College of Social Work back in the day. I see some kind of impasse has been reached now but I do wonder how sustainable it is to have two organisations – in a profession which has never particularly clung to representative organisations – battling for the same space.

With initiatives such as Frontline and the posts of the Chief Social Workers (who, it seems, have turned out to be mouthpieces for the govt – but I wait for them to prove otherwise to me) it has become really important for social workers to help define social work and not allow it to be defined for us by the Department of Health and the Department of Education. It isn’t only about child protection social work. It isn’t only about statutory social work. I am still as much of a social worker as I was last year, even though I don’t NEED to be a social worker for my post – perhaps I need to convince myself of that too but if we allow others to define the profession too narrowly, we will all lose out by it. In a world where I see the profession increasingly fragmenting, the real strength and voice can only come in unity. That’s what I’ve learnt.

In all, I remain incredibly proud to be a social worker. Although I was desperately sad to leave my last job and can’t help feeling tinges from time to time about whether I did the right thing, I can’t go back now. I have landed on my feet and the amount of learning I’ve done over the last year has been enormous. Mostly it’s about building on the skills, knowledge and values. You can’t be a social worker without all three of those. I’m still working on all of them and so very much locate myself within the profession. Will professional organisations, voices and representatives acknowledge that? I hope so.

Social work allowed me to create a ‘career’ when I never really thought I would have one. It’s allowed me to build confidence in myself so I can better represent and advocate others. It’s given me a great gift and I never expect to lose sight of that, forget the opportunities I have been given and stop fighting for the necessity of good social work. That’s done together though and we can build a better ‘social work’ with more voices.

That’s what I’ve learnt.

As I move on with both the writing and the career, I can’t help but feeling rather self-satisfied too. I am proud of what I have achieved so far but know there’s a long way to go. Pride isn’t particularly pretty but I’m hoping the confidence I’ve gained can be used to better represent, advocate and drive improvements for others as well as for me, rather than allow me to sit in a self-satisfied space and relax.

13 thoughts on “What I’ve learnt about Social Work

  1. Really enjoyed the blog. It described the feelings that many social workers have so well.
    You have a very readable, flowing way of writing and the obvious passion comes through.
    Would like to keep in touch. Have a look at socialworldpodcast.com Interested to see what you think.

    David

  2. Social workers make a living snatching babies at birth from loving mothers(for risk of emotional abuse) and giving them to strangers for “forced adoption”.When they take older children they confiscate mobile phones and laptops to isolate them from family and friends leaving them wondering why they have been punished.Parents and children alike undergo punishment without crime.
    What’s to be so proud about that???

  3. This was a great post. I have been a social worker for about 3 years, primarily working in mental health. I have realized that being a social worker means that you can never turn that part off. Ever. We have tremendously stressful jobs but the difference we make, no matter how slight, keeps us going.
    It would be wonderful to hear about your encounters with people outside this profession and their premature perceptions of what we do. Look forward to reading more.

  4. I always enjoy your writing, and I’m happy you moved away from “coal face” practice before you became burned out by the unsustainable stress levels. I always say that being an OT is like being “King or Queen in Narnia”; maybe being a SW is the same?

    “Once a King or Queen in Narnia, always a King or Queen in Narnia”
    -CS Lewis

  5. Fabulous post. I am so happy to see you back, I missed you during your absence. You inspired me. Once upon a time I was a support worker with aspirations. I read your blog over many months, and felt very privileged to glimpse an insight into the world of social work, both good and bad. I realised I was getting the type of education that could never be provided in a classroom or textbook, that made me think long and hard about all sorts of issues around social work I hadn’t previously considered in any depth.

    Fast forward a couple of years…..and I am now very proud to be in the first year of my social work degree. I consider that what I learnt from this blog gave me a pretty rounded idea of what I could expect from a social work career. And for that I thank you! Looking forward to more posts in the future 🙂

  6. I am training to be a Social Worker and after 4 years of studying I now realise I don’t want to be a Social Worker. I am supposed to secure a NQSW position within two years which is highly unlikely in the area I want, especially in the current uncertain climate. My final placement due to start in 4 weeks still hasn’t been confirmed due to the ongoing restructuring in our LA. In my opinion, the future for Social Workers looks pretty bleak.

    On a more positive note I have just accepted a job as an STR worker in mental health, specifically Dementia. This is my dream job and I cannot wait to start. What I really want is a job where I am helpful and I can make a difference. What I would like is a job that doesn’t feel like a job so I can stop saying ‘is it Friday yet?’.

    • Social work doesn’t have to lead to a “social work” job in a local authority with the NQSW/AYSE – I guess what I’ve tried to say, and have learnt is that social work skills, values and knowledge can take us to many many other places. It’s just a pity that sometimes the profession is drawn in a very narrow way.

  7. As a first year SW student I find myself relating to your post in that I too have no idea what to expect. I have found myself here unexpectedly and the idea of now building a career for myself in a profession where the things I do and choices I make have a direct impact on people’s lives both amazes and terrifies me. I’m just me, nobody special.
    It was refreshing to read you have continually enjoyed learning throughout your experiences and continue to draw on them to make you a better practitioner, even outside the ‘social work’ profession. I hope I too can continue to learn from each experience in an attempt to always be improving my practice.

  8. As a student Social Worker just starting my journey in my first year, you have inspired me! Your reflection on your experience of Social Work is honest and encouraging to read! I too agree that Social Work should be something we all should be proud to be associated with. Too many times have I seen the scape-goating of Social Work Services by the media! Social Workers constantly get a bad name, due to the fact I believe that people are often ignorant to what being a ‘Social Worker’ means! Most people are unaware of what the job entails, which makes them uneasy. If the difficult work people like yourself do on a day-to-day basis was more widely recognised, I feel that on the whole, society would be more appreciative of the work done! That’s not to say, however that the people we support aren’t grateful but just that others outside the profession aren’t aware of this. Social Work is a profession not driven by appraisal from the rest of society, but one which is rewarding when seeing the progress service users have made with assistance.

    It was a pleasure to read such a deeply reflective piece 🙂

  9. Your posts are fantastic! I would love to have a blog like yours that could amaze and inspire people! well done I’ve really enjoyed reading through your posts x

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