Burnout and Avoiding it.

I attended an event recently for newly qualified and student social workers. There were a number of speakers of which I was privileged to be one. Although it wasn’t a part of my ‘talk’, some of those speaking began by talking about how long they’d been in ‘social work’ and how they had managed to ‘stay fresh’ and counter burnout. It’s something I have appreciated more since I moved out of my social work job and moved into less intense, less stressful role. I don’t think I ‘burnt out’ but I do think I left at the right time. Things had been getting increasingly stressful at work due to the cuts and the increased workloads and a couple of incidents in the lead up to my applying for other roles made me realise it was probably a good time to take a step back.

While I can’t make the claims that some at the event did of having 20/30 years in social work ‘frontline’ practice and remaining fresh, I think there were a number of things that helped me in the 12 years that I did. I probably wasn’t helped by my having had a particularly difficult last few months at university. I sailed through the exams and modules but struggled with (and eventually failed) my MA dissertation. That meant I qualified with a PGDipSW rather than an MA in Social Work and although it made absolutely no difference to my career in the sense that I could work as a qualified social worker, it did give my ego quite a knock. In retrospect, although I’d never have said it at the time, it set off a chain of events which actually made me far more competent and able to deal with challenges, it made me realise I could fail and yet, succeed at the same time. It made me realise that intellectual achievement isn’t defined by qualifications or what particular tutors think. I did go back and retake the dissertation eventually (actually it was 5 years later) so I do have my Masters now, but at the point that I failed my dissertation, I had never failed any academic test which had been thrown in my direction, indeed, I’d pretty much sailed through without much effort.

On qualifying, I went into a fast paced adult social work team in inner city London. I thrived and was both excited and terrified as my caseload went from the six I  had on placement to around an average of 45. I’ve written about these experiences previously so won’t go into details. The things that got me through weren’t so much the management because, as I’ve realised since, my first manager was the least competent manager I’ve had through my professional career. It was my colleagues. I was extremely lucky to work in a team with very experienced, very kind practitioners who were patient with me as a newly qualified, agency social work – earning more than many of them, but they helped and guided me without anything but generosity and kindness in the absence of structured managerial support, in fact, sometimes in the context of an organisation where there was bullying from ‘above’.

I won’t list all my professional experiences and teams but it did get better. I had moments, not in my first or second year of practice, but in my third, fourth, fifth year when I wondered how long I’d last. When I first qualified, I didn’t have time to stop and think – it was doing and learning, doing and learning without any space to grow. By the time I settled into a good team, with a firm but fair manager who had a strong ethical focus, I looked around me and wondered if I would ever be as ‘good’ at my job as the person who sat next to me. The key that got me ‘on track’ was taking the old PQ1. I don’t think PQ1s exist anymore – this makes me feel old – but it was the first stage in the post-qualifying process. This was before (this is where I really DO feel old!) the NQSW/AYSE-type schemes. We were expected to practise on the ‘front-line’ and then think about post-qualifying practice awards. So it was I started the PQ1 in Social Work Practice at Brunel University which was a part of a London consortium. At that time, as well, it was a generic first step. I did the PQ1 alongside social workers in children and families and mental health. We had slightly different tinges to our work as I’m sure can be imagined, but we came together to share our learning.

The PQ1 gave me an absolutely amazing mentor, who was a very experienced social work manager in the same borough as me, but in a different team. She was someone I wanted to be like. I wanted to know as much as her and exude as much kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity and competence as she did. Most importantly though, I learnt what ‘reflection’ really was about. Of course, like any social work student, I’d studied, learnt and thought I understood ‘reflection’ when I was at university. I’d studiously completed reflective diaries and written reams of essays about reflection through my course – but it was at the post-qualifying stage, when I’d worked for a few years and held a fairly hefty caseload, that I grew to understand reflection far better. I have no doubt whatsoever that the PQ1 saved my career and saved me from burnout. Having a mentor who ‘got’ it and helped me create time and strategies to ‘remain fresh’ saved me.

It was this reflection process through the PQ1 and the encouragement of my mentor, that pushed me back to university to retake my failed MA dissertation. It also pushed me to apply for a different job and that, in turn, led me into the move to Mental Health services – so it really did change my life.

‘Getting’ reflection saved me and helped me to grow. The other part of that came a few years later when I started to write this blog. This writing process, and I did ‘force’ myself to write daily over a number of years – gave me the space to consider how my work fit into a wider health and social care system. It gave me a voice that even though inconsequential on the larger scale of things, meant I didn’t take my frustrations with work, into work. It pushed me into directions I had not considered, for example, a desire to learn more about current research and policy documents. It meant I read far more about health and social care and understood my part in it. I became more active and more vocal at work in areas and became involved in BASW and later, the College of Social Work as a result, realising that influence doesn’t always necessarily need to link itself to management or leadership.

So what would I advise to a newly qualified social worker to avoid burnout? Well, it wouldn’t be the newly qualified social worker I’d be most worried about for a start. It would be the social worker 2/3/4 years into their career where I think the difference can be made. While I don’t think I’m necessarily in a position to ‘advise’, I would say, rather, what worked for me.

 

Asking for help. I didn’t ‘ask’ for my mentor to turn up. She was ‘assigned’ to me but she was one of the key people who had a significant influence on my career and my life. I have never told her that. We can’t always have that handed on a plate though and hopefully there are different sources for mentorship other than people turning up at your desk saying ‘I’m here to help you’. Maybe it’s something that experienced practitioners have a responsibility for. I am no longer a practice educator, but I was, and I miss having students but I think having an oversight or interest in the careers of ‘younger’ (not through age but through work experience) professionals is something we can all do.

 

However well you think you ‘get’ reflection, you can always ‘get it’ better. I’m learning massive amounts about  how to develop skills to reflect on my practice and the effect that I have on other people’s lives. I had some skills which started to grow at university and through various experiences of supervision but different environments and different experiences need new skills to learn and grow all the time. I’m absolutely convinced that it is reflection that leads to good and caring practice so we need to create space and learn from ourselves in different ways. Sometimes we don’t have mentors. Sometimes we work alone. Sometimes we don’t get the supervision we should. Sometimes we don’t have environments which allow us space. So we create this for ourselves, in our own way, often in our own time to learn. It might be writing things down, it might be unpicking things internally, but it is necessary to all aspects of work with other people that affects their lives.

 

Being interested in broader issues. I got involved in BASW and when BASW imploded in pique of rage, I got involved in the College of Social Work. I was and am just a ‘lowly’ social worker without any managerial responsibilities but I decided that didn’t mean I didn’t have a useful perspective to bring to the table. Indeed, in some ways, it was more useful than all the managerial perspectives put together. I found that reading and trying to understand policy issues and papers as they were published meant I could relate some of my day to day work to broader social justice agenda goals – which it didn’t always feel like on a micro level.

 

Support each other. I didn’t have much management support when I first started but was pulled along through my first year by colleagues. I hope, in turn, I’ve been supportive to those I’ve worked with over the years. Sometimes it’s hard to explain the work to anyone who doesn’t do it. While work/life balance is essential of course, sometimes you need to speak and share with other people who ‘get it’ and can support from a non-managerial viewpoint.

 

Work/life balance Say it often. There need to be some boundaries between work and life. I know it’s not always easy, I’m not always great at it myself but doing things that are ‘not work’ really does help!

 

– Knowing when to go and when to return Although it may not be for me to judge, I don’t think I ‘burnt out’ but I could feel myself getting more frayed around the edges before I left my last job. I increasingly had begun to feel I wasn’t necessarily being a ‘good’ change in the lives of the people I worked with as my work became more about telling and less about asking. As I felt I was taking away more than I was giving. I never stopped caring, I don’t think, but I felt increasingly frustrated with the amount of change I could affect and my role in the system. I became more frustrated – not with my immediate managers – who were always incredibly supportive, but of the organisations I worked in and the lack of my voice within them. I think I left at the right time. Now, I miss my old job. I think, in the back of my mind, I hope to return to ‘frontline’ practice someway, in some capacity. When I do, I expect I’ll be enthusiastic and re-energised in a way that was very necessary.

 

So those are some of the things that helped me. I am in another job now but the same tools help me through. I try to take time to reflect and whilst I don’t write here as regularly, I have other ways to ponder and learn from the ways I affect people’s lives.  It would be interesting to know other people’s tips for not burning out.. especially if you’ve been in the job for a few years.

Looking back and looking forward

I haven’t posted much here over the last year and most of my posts have been about looking back rather than looking forward. 2013 was an important year for me in a lot of ways. By moving out of a social work job, I’ve developed new layers of understanding about what social work is and what it means to me, and to us all to have strong and value-based social work practice in society. Also, despite having worked in an NHS team for years, by moving out, I’ve learnt a lot more about this messy, wonderful healthcare system that we have in this country. It’s something to be thankful for as a concept but we can’t shy away from being critical at the details where necessary. Criticism can come from people who have broader political agendas but sometimes it comes from people who have been damaged by poor care and treatment and sometimes it comes from people who want to be ‘critical friends’ and we shouldn’t confuse the motives for criticism. Sometimes those who love us the most can be the harshest critics – not because we want to destroy but because we want to improve – for ourselves, our families and for those who have the quieter voices and aren’t able to raise them. Sometimes.

I worked in the same geographical area for ten years – the same local authority, the NHS Trust which covered the same area. As my focus became broader and I saw, up close, how things operate in other local authorities and in other NHS Trusts, I have come to realise how narrowly I focused on extrapolating the general from the particular. My main theme of 2013 has been one of learning and really, that’s an incredible opportunity. To me, there is no greater privilege and opportunity than to learn.

For 2014 I have a further opportunity to learn and to use the learning I have gained to good effect. I want to focus and share some of my thoughts on the year ahead how I got to where I am now.

Power

Everyone working in health and social care has power. Everyone. Because we see and work with people who have vulnerabilities at the stages of their lives when they need to use the services which are provided. A dentist can see the most confident politician shifting into a blubbering mass of fear at the sight of their drill. A care worker on minimum wage, not being paid for travel time, can have the measure of someone’s entire day, week, month in their hands with rough handling, a harsh word, or worse. Sometimes when we feel we are ‘on the frontline’ we forget about the power we have. I’m definitely guilty of that. I think back to my previous job and how we used to grumble and moan about ‘managers’ never listening to us – while forgetting the immensity of the powers over people’s lives that we held in our hands.  We can fall into the trap (and I’ve done it myself so this isn’t me intending to preach) of thinking we are powerless in organisations when we have enormous power in our own hands.

Now I’m in a position where the power I have is more explicit. I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the thought of having power. I laugh it off sometimes, because honestly, sometimes it scares me. When I stop to acknowledge it, I have to deal with it. I have to use it well and I have to use it to improve services and advocate better for people who use them. This year, I’ve found myself in rooms with ‘important’ people and often thought “what on earth am I doing here?”, “why would anyone be interested in what I have to say” and no one else (to my face, anyway) seems to be thinking it. So I’ve had to grapple with my own change in ‘status’ although the more I think, the more I see the power I had before but never acknowledged as fully. If I don’t feel comfortable with it, that’s my problem and if I don’t realise it, I’m not using it to its best. So this year has been a year for me to get to grips with it. I still need to work on my self-confidence and not running out of meetings, into the bathroom to look in the mirror and wonder if I’m still the same person that they all seem to see and treat with respect, and listen to with interest. I know I need to work on that but I’m coming round to it.

Constructive Criticism

This year I started a creative writing class which runs weekly. I don’t really see myself as a budding novelist. I’ve had that dream sometimes but I think if it was going to happen it would happen by now. We are a disparate group of people who have different jobs and move in different circles and are different generations. Each week, we write one (or more) pieces and then bring them back to the class where we critique each others’ work. It’s taught me an interesting and useful lesson about constructive criticism. Sometimes when you write sometimes, particularly if it has an autobiographical tilt to it, then you can be very sensitive to criticism. One of the first weeks, someone in my creative writing class wrote a story about the death of her son. I was asked to provide constructive criticism. It was very hard. It wasn’t the most beautifully written piece but the rawness and  heart in it together with the honesty was something I will never forget. It reminded me of some of the ways we react to criticism and how we can be constructive in our criticism of services without tearing them down or destroying the people who you are criticising. Being a social worker, I’m used to press criticism. My view was always that we should worry less about what right wing commentariat and government ministers say and get our own act together to develop more professional self-confidence and that will batten back some of the foul and most unfair criticism. People will never love social workers as long as social workers whine about not being respected or mutter about press conspiracies against them. People don’t know and understand what we do and often see the ‘iron fist’ of state functions as the ‘velvet glove’ of tirelessly working alongside people to get to grips with systems isn’t as interesting a story.

Now we see more entrenched criticisms of other professions in the health and social care sectors – GPs, A&E, mental health services, nurses. I hope they learn from us as social workers. We can and should never, ever defend poor practice for a start. It shows no credit to anyone. We should accept there are people out there who share our professional background who might not be committed to the same values that 90+% of us share. If we defend them BECAUSE they are social workers, doctors, nurses – we do everyone a disservice. We have to prove and show how the good works and not allow the bad to define it. But that means we have to condemn the bad too, alongside the press. We have to learn the skills of constructive criticism of organisations that we love. We have to teach the public about the role we have so it doesn’t become defined by a press with an agenda – especially as we move into the election period. We have more channels now to share what we do and how we do it – we can take advantage of that.

Change management

I’m probably not the one to harp on about ‘change management’ as I’ve never had to manage anyone else – but the coming year is going to be a significant one for me in terms of changes and mostly managing my own changes.  These changes will come through work and out of work. I’m about to move house and leave an area I’ve been living in for many many years. Both these things terrify me. Although I can come across (to people who know me) as quite laid back – I’m actually terrified of uncertainty. I will deal with it. I always have and will continue to because we can’t and wouldn’t want to construct lives in tiers of certainty I guess. Keeps me on my toes. How I deal with change will very much define my year though. I am not the only one – again, this is common in the sector I work in. We might not all be moving house, but we all have to deal with endless reconfigurations, rewriting of roles, adjustments of responsibilities. I joke that I have got good at it but that doesn’t make the underlying anxieties disappear.

Then I think it’s a microcosm of life. We all have to deal with unexpected changes and being asked to deal with things we never realised we had it in ourselves to do – a weird analogy with death. I remember when my dad was very unwell and near to death. His health went up and down like a yo-yo and there were many times when we thought he was close to death and then, he managed to continue on, despite all the odds. I often had thoughts about wondering how on earth I could imagine a world where he was dead. I tried to imagine it in my head sometimes and found it too difficult. He had always been there. I knew, obviously, he wouldn’t always be, but I couldn’t understand how I would continue to manage in a world where I couldn’t pop round to my dad’s or where he wouldn’t be on the end of the phone when I needed to talk to him. Of course, he died. And I went on. It’s a kind of ‘change management’ isn’t it? I didn’t know how I would do it, but I have, and I do continue in the world where I can’t pop round and where I have photos to replace the reality. So it is with other kinds of changes – sometimes we can’t imagine it beforehand but we deal with things because we don’t have any choice and we deal with it well, because we have to – we are human and resilient. In some ways, my experiences of bereavement as much as reconfigurations at work – prepare me to change. I don’t know what it’ll be like, but I’ll deal with it because I have to.

Hope

This possibly isn’t apparent to too many people, even those who know me quite well but I’ve probably lost a lot of my hope this year for various reasons. I have become more cynical and developed a more pervasive and lingering sense of despair about where services that I love and have been a part of over many years have gone or are going. I have to force myself to believe more now and I worry that I have lost hope. This is an area I am going to actively rather than passively focus on for the next year. I need hope and I miss hope. Yes, the financial situation has been dire and local authorities, NHS Trusts, voluntary sector organisations and central government are all strapped for cash and this is having a real impact on people but there are genuinely decent people doing fantastic work in all these sectors. Money is important and I can’t forgive some of the funding and political decisions made but on a micro level, we can all improve lives and experiences for individuals and that’s what I need to focus on more. Sometimes I forget.

2014 is going to be an interesting year, for sure, and my wish is that we all have a chance to realise how we can make a difference and recapture hope –even on a small level  – but preferably on a much larger one – and what we can each do with the power we  have to make these sectors whom people rely on, much better for 2014 and many years beyond.

Happy New Year

Choice, Control and Obfuscation – How the Personalisation Dream is Dying

In the bold move towards a transformation in adult social care, it feels from where I sit, that control has completely overtaken any pretence of ‘choice’ in the so-called move towards more idealised ‘person-centred’ care and support planning.

I hope I’ve been clear over the years in which I’ve expressed a remarkably consistent view that I love the idea of people being able to choose the support plan they like from a wide menu of options with ‘professionals’ taking less of a role.  I am a massive fan of direct payments. I want people to have more personalised care and more creative care. Desperately. The options just aren’t there yet for people who lack capacity and that is a terrible disservice and inequity that is being served throughout the care system.

Removing care planning from my role doesn’t concern me – unlike those people on the training courses who bang the drums blindly about how wonderful and bright it looks when we allow people to choice whatever they like to put together packages of care, I don’t want ‘retain control’, I truly don’t believe that I, as a professional ‘know better’,  but likewise I know that with the user group I work with, it is rare that I can just hand someone a support planning tool and a list of potential providers and tell them to ‘get on with it’.

That is as far from reality now as it was 20 years ago in my work. While I can say that everyone I care co-ordinate who has a ‘package of care’ is now officially on a ‘personal budget’ and some even have direct payments, it hasn’t really increased choice or control for any but a couple of those people.

If anyone for a moment wants to ponder the duplicitious nature of those in policy making ivory towers who dribble down policies which they want to couch in ‘soft’ language so they are difficult to challenge, one only has to read a fantastic piece of research conducted and published on The Small Places site.

It is worth reading through the piece in detail. Lucy, the author, made a number of requests to local authorities to ask about how their Resource Allocation Systems (the link between the ‘assessment’ and the ‘cash’ – basically) was calculated.  She seemed to come up against a wall of obfuscation but it’s worth looking at her research in detail.

This reluctance for me, seems to relate to the lack and reduction in spending on care and support – the key ‘missing piece’ as to why a council can ‘reassess’ someone as needing less ‘cash’ than they did last year with a more traditional care package.

My personal experience is that the council I work in (and this is similar to things I’ve heard from people in other councils) probably doesn’t want to share it’s RAS because it’s ashamed of the utter dog’s dinner that it’s made of it. It doesn’t ‘work’. It doesn’t make sense. It is frequently changed. There is more emphasis on physical health needs as opposed to mental health needs and while there can be manual adjustments, some of the figures that are ‘spat out’ just seem nigh on ridiculous (and that works for sometimes calculating care ‘too high’ as much as a figure which is ‘too low’).  It comes down to everything needing to be qualified and fitted onto a spreadsheet when actually the needs of two people who might fill out a self-assessment with the same ‘tick boxes’ might have very different needs in reality – no RAS can account for that. One person might under-score because they are embarrassed by the process and don’t want to admit to being incontinent on an initial visit from a social worker because they haven’t been able to tell anyone other than their GP – another person might be anxious and think they can manage less well than they can. Sometimes and this is what local authorities and health services seem to find hard to account for, you just have to treat people and their needs as individuals rather than the subject of outcome measures, tick box performance indicators or resource allocation systems.

Shouldn’t personalisation be about putting the user at the heart of the system? Every user should have a copy of the RAS and how the figure was determined. Which questions are weighted and which aren’t. Without that, there flow of money and the control rests solely with the local authority.

I’m fully against ‘traditional’ care packages. Having someone anonymous and constantly changing pop in for a 30 min welfare check once a day isn’t about improving the quality, control and choice in someone’s life, it’s about a local authority doing the absolute bare minimum that they can get away with to fulfil their statutory duties of care.

The lack of openness about the ways that the RAS shows the true colours of the reasons for these pushes towards the Eden of ‘Personalisation’.

While I have no doubt that for some people, as I keep saying, those with advocates, family or who are able to voice their own needs clearly, have and will continue to benefit enormously from having direct payments – it’s worth remembering that direct payments have been available and accessible for many years now.

Forcing everyone onto personal budgets has only discriminated against those with carers by reducing the amounts of money they are entitled to through the RAS (that’s my own experience of how our local RAS works) and has discriminated against those who lack capacity by promising all sorts of ‘creative’ ways of exploring third party management of support plans but without providing any real ways of accessing it (this is my current bugbear as I have been requesting assistance with this for months for service users I work with but have been told it is not possible for older adults yet as only those with learning disabilities have budgets large enough to make it cost effective – thereby clearing discriminating on the basis of age and type of disability).

I have changed from a fervent advocate of a system which was supposed to be so much better for everyone to a bitter opponent of a system which favours some kinds of disabilities over others, some kinds of service users over others, some kinds of carers (those who are willing to put a lot more time in to manage and support plan where necessary) than others and all to provide fewer services under the guise of choice.

No wonder Burstow is pushing everyone towards direct payments. He is pushing everyone towards a system which masks the way that payments are determined and discriminates openly against people who lack capacity or who have the ‘wrong’ kind of disability or family support.

Now we know that the local authorities can hide the way they make financial calculations, it becomes much more obvious to see behind the facade of the ‘Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ who promotes choice as the final goal to achieve at all costs.

I feel tricked and betrayed by the implementation of the personalisation agenda and the lack of any of the services around it to tackle directly with the problems at it’s heart.

I was deeply disappointed, for example, that the Mental Health Foundation’s ‘research’ and work with people specifically with dementia only focussed on people who either had capacity or had family.  Their advice talks lovingly of setting up trust funds, appointing brokers – well, that is a fantasy rather than a reality and exists only on paper as a choice. They merely replicated a lot of work which was done when direct payments were rolled out around lack of take up for people with dementia and they hadn’t said anything new (I happened to write my dissertation about the lack of take up of direct payments for older adults so did actually do literature researches at the time..).

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

For now, I think it’s important that we who see through the cosy policy makers congratulating about a ‘job well done’ speak up and speak up loudly for those for whom the system is a further barrier for true individualised care because these self-same policy-makers see them as ‘too difficult’.

My title explains that the personalisation dream is dying but it isn’t dead yet. To be brought back to life, all those involved need to embrace the principles of honesty and openness and not blind themselves to their successes if they can’t see the continuing barriers.

Interviews and Ideas

Please forgive the blatant self-promotion in this post but it’s Friday and I’m feeling a like I have a bit of a cold coming so I’m less ‘perky’ than usual.

Dorlee from Social Work Career Development has published an interview which she did with me and it concentrates on what I do at work and some of the ways it differs from Social Work in the United States.  Excellent work, if I do say so myself – but joking apart, it is a good way for us to learn about social work in other countries.

Shirley Ayres has written a fantastic post for PSW, the BASW magazine (yes, I know.. ) and it includes some gems from myself. It’s a piece about social media use for social work specifically and is definitely worth a look.  The PDF is available here

As for my twittering on last week about wanting to work collaboratively on more online social work conferences/learning/interaction – well, it’s VERY rudimentary, but I’ve set up a ‘holding site’ here

Feel free to nose around as the whole point is to emphasise openness, conversation and working together on something that can be led by social work and improve social work without having a cost barrier to entry and that allows all who want to learn and contribute to do so. I’ve also added a very basic forum just to collect ideas.

I don’t have any great desire to ‘run’ this project and if anyone with greater technical skills wants to volunteer them then please please do but it’s a start and I hope someone will – even if it isn’t me – because I think something that adds value to our collective, international knowledge base and moves learning out of universities and into practice will be a real ‘hook’ in convincing more practicing social workers to engage with social media and new technologies.

Enough from me, the forum is here. Do join and share ideas.

(Don’t be scared that there isn’t much there yet.. everything needs to start somewhere!)

Why I’m wrong – A response from BASW

I am not going to add anything to this post. After I wrote a post explaining why I left BASW, I was sent this as a response and agreed to publish it.  I’ll leave the questions and comments for others and I have asked that someone from BASW respond to any questions or comments that arise from this post but obviously they are very busy so here’s their post. – cb

I’m disappointed that you are leaving BASW and, as head of communications for the Association and editor of PSW, I’m equally disappointed about your assessment of this magazine.

BASW is fortunate that more members have been joining than leaving for some time now but retention is just as vital as recruitment so any loss is frustrating.

Most members leave because their circumstances have changed – they might have lost their job, left social work or retired. On those occasions when someone contacts us to cite a specific issue for why they no longer wish to remain a member, someone from within BASW will usually correspond with them to at least try to respond to their concerns. Whether it makes any difference isn’t really the point – the main thing is to secure a grasp of what we’re doing wrong and how to do it better.

Your departure, inevitably more vocal and more public, is no different except that it seems appropriate to respond equally publicly, given the platform you have employed to air your views.

You cite BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union (SWU) as the reason for now deciding to leave the Association. Clearly, the odd gripe apart, you are happy with your union and with your local representative. Fine. Really, fine, BASW has no intention of encouraging social workers who are happy with their trade union to up-sticks and join SWU instead.

We hope members in this position will still reflect on the range of member benefits being part of BASW offers, and will want to be part of their professional association, but in no sense is it making a play to poach you and others like you from other unions.

There are two reasons why SWU can be a good thing for the social work profession generally without impacting on the social work membership levels of Unison or any other union.

Firstly, there are well over 40,000 social workers in the UK who are not a member of a trade union or a professional association, so have little of the security such membership affords a practitioner in need of support – from basic advice to prolonged representation. By no measure can this be a welcome fact.

To date, a standalone BASW, acting solely as a professional association and without a union arm, has not attracted these people into membership. Nor too has any trade union appealed sufficiently for them to consider subscribing. BASW’s launch of the Social Workers Union offers these people something else, another option which some of them, just some, might choose to take.

Secondly, and most pressingly, there is one significant factor in BASW deciding to establish SWU that shouldn’t be ignored. A number of local authorities were increasingly unwilling to allow our Advice & Representation officers to attend internal disciplinary or conduct hearings. Although in contravention of ACAS guidance, this was leaving some fee-paying BASW members without access to the sort of expert representation they were entitled to have.

The ACAS guidance, it would seem, is just that, and if you are not a trade union then you don’t have guaranteed access to represent members with employers in the way we would want. By launching SWU, for no extra cost to members, we ensure, among other things, proper protection for local authority staff. This has to be a good development for social workers.

And let’s be very clear about which social workers. You describe BASW as ‘less relevant to me as a local authority social worker’ and ‘focused on either students and newly qualified social workers or independent social workers’. Yet SWU is, more than anything else, about ensuring we can support local authority social workers fully and properly in the increasing number of cases we are sadly being presented with where members are being poorly supported by employers.

You do allude to something very interesting though on the issue of how BASW represents local authority social workers and where we can do better. You suggest that the one thing you would really welcome is the chance for informal social networks – ‘safe’ places, physically and virtually, where like-minded people can discuss the future of social work. It’s a very strong concept and one BASW has recognised but could do far more in developing.

In this instance it is fair to say that we have gone much further down this road with independent members than local authority workers, as illustrated by the number of very successful independent groups holding regular meetings around the country. These aren’t controlled propaganda exercises – BASW staff usually only attend the first meeting to help get things off the ground – but informal meetings of independent social workers which BASW helps facilitate and that participants themselves then take forward.

We have staged a host of ‘tours’ within all UK countries over the past three years, many of which proved to be useful two-way discussion sessions, but facilitating networking groups within local authorities would be a good step for our members and should be explored further, and soon.

One of the most notable aspects of your blog, and the one I felt most keenly, was your assessment of PSW magazine. In particular, you referred to ‘pages and pages of propaganda’ and that there is ‘no space at all for any kind of dissenting or alternate views’. I will respond to this at some length but in brief I do not feel this is an accurate assessment of this magazine or BASW’s approach to dissent.

I have worked for a trade union where the members’ magazine became solely a propaganda device, where every editorial item was utterly patronising and where opportunities for dissent gradually dissolved to the extent it was untenable for me to remain with that organisation. I don’t miss it and I wouldn’t go back into that same environment or remain in an organisation that developed such a mindset. BASW is not that kind of organisation. Not even close.

Look at page 11 of this month’s PSW and you can see that one of the three letters is a direct attack on the magazine for publishing an article the correspondent loathed about lessons to be learnt from the Baby P case. I might disagree with the contributor but his was a valid member’s view which we published without hesitation.

Go back to March when we published a double page spread of comments posted by members online after BASW launched its own College of Social Work (as you will know, the name has since been dropped as BASW and the SCIE-sponsored College work to establish a single organisation for 2012) and you will see two sharply critical views and one far from convinced about the move. As a proportion of the 200 or so responses we received online this wasn’t just a fair reflection of dissent, it actually represented a higher proportion of opposing opinions than were actually posted.

Go back even further to the fall-out from BASW’s decision in early 2010 to hold a referendum of members on the kind of college members wanted to see. We carried letters from one BASW Council member who had resigned and another from a member at the end of his term, both of which were sharply critical of any move away from the SCIE college. No censorship, just publication.

It may surprise you but we actually don’t get a massive postbag of alienated members wishing to air their ire. Far more correspondents focus on something specific they have read, respond to requests for comment on a particular topical issue or, to my inevitable frustration, highlight minor errors of fact or grammar.

As for ‘reams of pages about how important BASW’ is, this is a tougher one because to some extent you have a point – we didn’t used to highlight the Association’s work that much in PSW at all. And people would complain that they didn’t know what BASW did.

People used to wonder why they were paying their membership fees if BASW wasn’t more publicly prominent, more vocal about the issues that mattered to them. BASW is definitely more assertive, more opinionated and, sometimes, more bolshy and for a lot of members that is a good thing.

Now, should that entail using the magazine for endless self promotion? No, in my view it should mean members get to read what BASW’s position is on key issues, whether on the riots in England, adult protection laws in Scotland, funding cuts in Northern Ireland or a consultation document on the future of social work in Wales.

As a monthly title PSW can’t present you, in print at least, with the very latest news, but it can reflect on the past month’s developments by offering the facts and adding a BASW view. This doesn’t change the facts but it does enable members to see what BASW is lobbying for, using the membership subscription fees they pay each year.

News is only a small part of the magazine though, so too is The Chief, where the chief executive is free to write what he wants to the BASW membership. Elsewhere you can read content including features, book reviews, advice columns and interviews, none of which offers a BASW view or seeks to evangelise.

Incidentally, though not without relevance, 345 members replied to a survey on our communications output in early summer and 92% said PSW was either a welcome or very welcome member benefit. It’s not scientific and there are plenty of members who haven’t expressed a view but it’s not a bad statistic considering it is an anonymous poll and I haven’t stood behind anyone’s back twisting their arms.

And just to go back to the issue of self promotion, only a couple of days ago, after reading your blog, I noticed a comment within a Guardian story about research it was co-sponsoring into the causes of the riots, in which the editor-in-chief waxed lyrical about the ‘great strides in the field of data journalism’ The Guardian was continuing to make. Possibly true but certainly self promotional.

BASW is an active, growing organisation that is constantly developing new services. We need to talk about this if we are to sustain our growth as, to borrow from your blog, there is ‘strength in numbers’ and the more members we have the more we can represent the interests of the social work profession – whether you are a student, local authority worker, independent or anyone else.

Joe Devo

………

As for those Annual General Meeting numbers you wanted. Around 230 people attended the Practice Symposium in the morning and 164 remained for the actual Annual General Meeting. Of these, 134 supported the launch of SWU, 21 opposed the motion and eight abstained. Proxy votes totaled just nine, with five opposed to the launch of SWU and four in favour.

Would we like more members to take part in the decision about the future of their organisation? Absolutely and we are trying to learn lessons from our attempts to promote the AGM in May. Several advertisements and e-bulletins actually attracted the biggest turn out at a BASW AGM in my time at the Association, around five years, but we must continue to try and up the numbers further as clearly those who attend the event are clearly a minority of our overall membership – though this isn’t particularly unusual for any union or association.

Considerable effort will be made to alert members to the next opportunity to shape the future of BASW on 1 November when an Additional General Meeting in Birmingham will be asked to determine whether BASW should transfer its assets into a new College of Social Work. This will commence in earnest once BASW Council meets on 21 September to consider the latest position ahead of the Additional General Meeting.

Weekly Social Work Links 30

As the days become more distinctly autumnal, I’m sharing some interesting links I’ve come across over the last week. As always feel free to share any other links you find that are related or interesting in the comments section.

I’m always wanting to find new blogs that are related to social work internationally so if you find one I haven’t noticed again, please leave a link!

Firstly, another plug for This Week in Mentalists – a now-traditional weekly round up of mental health related posts from which I stole my inspiration for these round up posts. Essential weekly reading for me and for all those who have an interest in mental health.

Indeed, it was through This Week in Mentalists that I came across the wonderful new blog ‘Veruca Salt’ who works in a CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service) Team and in which she discusses anger management. Rang a lot of bells with me. I really look forward to following her blog which she suggests in her byline, will share ‘views on children and adolescent mental health’.

Keep writing, Veruca, I think this one will be a corker!

I also came across this post on Blogher which is written by someone who worked as a social worker. The title says it all really ‘The Problem with handing out the Happy Pills’. She raises some excellent and thoughtful points about medication.

Social Work Soldier – another new blog I’ve recently found, shares her thoughts on her first weeks in a new job.

While Social Worker Mom looks for a new job.

And as the author of From Media to Social Work gets ready to embark on her course, she shares her thoughts of the shadowing experiences she has had over the summer.

The Masked AMHP shares part one of his ‘genesis’ story or how he got into social work. It’s a fantastic post!

On a related subject the Social Work Career Development shares some motivational quotes and asks for more examples from readers.

Social Worker in the South meanwhile shares a moving story which indicates the importance of this line of work.

and Going Mental explains that sometimes ‘the system’ works.

On Eyes Open Wider, meanwhile, some reflection and thoughts on what the innate sadness in some of the work that is done.

The Modern Social Worker shares a post about Eugenics, Race and a woman’s right to choose. Perhaps particularly timely as the abortion debate ranks up here in the UK.

SocialJerk has some fine posts as always including this one about the paranoias that exist about adults working with children and some of the absurdities that have arisen around these paranoias.

Community Care’s Social Work Blog has a post about a ‘game’ developed by the University of Kent to assist in training around child protection practice through the use of scenarios (I haven’t actually tried the game but would be interested to hear from anyone who has)

Nechakogal’s blog shares some relevant (and freely accessible) research on different subjects,  which is worth checking out. I’m a great fan of open access for research and papers.

How Not to Do Social Work shares his variation on ‘What I did in my Summer Holidays’ post with typical thoughtfulness.

One a completely different note, A Social Worker’s View draws our attention to Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

And The New Social Worker Online Blog considers the impact on endometriosis.

The Social Work Tech Blog has a fantastically detailed ‘how to’ post about using technology to ‘observe’ sessions and to learn from them.

Finally congratulations to Gamer Therapists who has published a book on Video Games and Psychotherapy.

Online Learning and Social Work – A proposal

I’m on a theme at the moment so run with me. I have through various conversations that I’ve hooked into among Occupational Therapists come across this programme OT4OT (Online Technology for Occupational Therapists)

"Make a photograph... [@dailyshoot #ds134]

 

connectlrmeli @ Flickr

It is a proposed, international educational programme using occupational therapists internationally to provide and support web-based learning or as they call it a ‘virtual exchange schedule’ to promote learning and understanding and uses of technology to grow international knowledge about occupational therapy internationally.

It’s a fantastic model but I’m desperately jealous. Where is the social work equivalent? How about an international ‘virtual exchange schedule’ of free programming that social workers internationally can both contribute to and participate in? Why do we leave these things to those who organise and charge fees which are too large for individual interested practitioners to attend?

I’d love to find out more about this model and see if there’s a way of pursuing a similar experience in social work internationally but I’d need people to come on board. Is there anyone firstly who would contribute their expertise to run virtual sessions or discussion groups throughout a ‘day’. Any social work departments willing to help with technology aspects and providing an educational ‘oversight’ to the quality of submissions? The idea would be for an international event to broaden international experiences of social work. I think it could be a fantastic resource and opportunity.

An opportunity for ‘people like me’ who are not linked directly to universities to run ‘events’ online, it could also be an opportunity for those who teach to share some of their information globally and gain experience and exposure of running online events.

I need to do a bit of work behind the scenes regarding technical aspects and how that  might work but I don’t think it needs to be complicated.

Anyone interested? I can put together some kind of mailing list or group on Google to discuss further. I just want to know if I’m shooting into the wind or not!   I’ll do a bit of investigating regarding hosting and technological needs over the weekend and will write up posts as I find out information. I think it could be something really exciting.

(just as an aside – wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if this was something our ‘College of Social Work’ or BASW were to put together without nudging – that’s the kind of innovation and progressive thinking I’d like to see from a professional association rather than messing around and replicating unions that already exist).