The Privilege of Social Work
It’s easy to find problems, anxieties and stresses on a day to day basis. We often joke that social workers have a particular outlook that encourages a degree of grumpiness and that’s not so difficult to understand. Often we do work with people who have been ignored and marginalised by society with resources that are being cut and in large scale organisations that can often frustrate our professional judgements. The feeling of working in a sausage factory when you want to be a creative — co-producing innovative care plans but stuck in a model which favours top down implementations can be frustrating and can sap one’s soul.
It is in this environment that is best remembered, reminding ourselves if noone else is there to do it, of the privilege that it is to work in this field. If we begin to stop thinking and remembering the privileges we have — not on a day to day basis, everyone has good days and bad days and we have the rights to dips in mood, but on a weekly, monthly, yearly basis, it may be time to think about moving out or moving on.
I have twice ‘stepped out’ of social work since qualifying. Once was just after one year of practice as a locum social work. I went to work in a completely different field for two years. There were various circumstances around this which weren’t related to me not wanting to do social work but it had been a tough initiation. This was back in 2000 before AYSE or NQSW programmes or protected caseloads or anything like that. I went straight into an older people’s care management job in a busy inner city London team. My caseload hovered between 35–45. In the weeks before I left, I closed or transferred 49 people and families to others. I lacked confidence after completing my qualification. And I left. It was only after leaving (and I was gone for two years), that I realised what I had left behind. It wasn’t during month one, or month five — it was more in year two actually. During those years, I came to the decision that it was absolutely what I wanted to do — or at least, I wanted to try in a different setting. One office, one environment and one organisational culture, does not define the profession.
So I returned, again as a locum — into an generic, multi-disciplinary adult social work team, again in inner city London (a different borough) and again as a locum. It was different — not least because the service manager inspired faith and confidence and she was supportive. I applied for a permanent job in the team as soon as it came up and stayed in that borough (although I moved internally into mental health) for roughly ten years. Then I stepped out again, to where I am now. I am still using my social work skills and knowledge but am not in a post which requires me to have a social work registration (although I maintain it because I feel it is a part of a professional identity which is important to me).
Moving away from a direct social work role in a local authority/mental health trust has given me space to breathe. It has also given me cause to reflect on the meaning of the role I left behind and what I miss about being a social worker. Sometimes we can’t appreciate the value of what we have until we don’t have it anymore.
So what are the privileges of social work? Well, this is just my view. I’m no expert, but it’s important to fill in the gaps yourself and consider, away from the specific job, in the specific borough, with the specific team — what the profession has given you? But these are my answers.
- Social work has given me a sense of professional belonging. Prior to starting my MA in social work, I had worked in residential care. I enjoyed care work. I worked with adults with learning disabilities and — not least, I had a lot of fun in the job. I liked the people I worked with, both residents and staff and I was fortunate to work for an organisation which was well-run and wanted the best for residents. I was a young graduate in London and my family and friends couldn’t always understand why I had taken a job (and worked in it for 4 years) which didn’t ‘require’ my qualifications. This didn’t bother me remotely but there was a constant expectation that was sometimes irritating. A friend of mine, who I’d worked with went on a few dates with a guy she met doing a bank shift who was applying to do a social work postgraduate course (Reader, she married him — they now have two teen kids!) who persuaded her to do the same. She then persuaded me to go for it too. I had never even understood what social workers did before that. But going from never really thinking in ‘career’ terms to having a ‘proper qualification’ was an enormous jump. The training gave me confidence and it gave me a starting point from which to build more expertise and skill in social care settings. The profession has given me an identity and introduced me to wonderful, knowledgeable social workers and most importantly service users who have been willing to share painful experiences and key expertise generously. I didn’t realise how important ‘belonging’ was until I actually felt it.
- Social work has given me a voice. It’s easy to complain about our lot in the face of management structures which are very top down but the professional role is explicitly laden with power. We make vital decisions about people’s lives and the things that are important to them. We need to respect this and we can only respect the power we have by respecting the position we hold. It is through being a social worker that we can be heard by courts, by other professionals and by service users. If I go to someone’s house during a visit and make what I believe to be an off-hand comment about tidiness (note, I never did — I’m not really bothered by messy!), it can instil a sense of fear in those who are responding not to me — a nice, friendly person who sometimes likes to joke (as I think!) but a representative of local authority/mental health trust Bumbleshire. If ‘a social worker’ says it, it must be important/key. We should never lose sight of the impact of our voice. Professionally, I’ve used the voice I gain to write blogs and articles, to speak to those outside the profession and to speak to students and newly qualified social workers. This is a role which requires responsibility. The power of a voice — when people listen to that voice is not something to take lightly. To those who haven’t yet utilised the full scope of the social work voice, try it. You can write, you can tweet, you can join a professional organisation and join others or create a support group within your own organisation. Collective voices are stronger than individual voices.
- Social work has given me power. I have written a lot about power and social work so for fear of repeating myself, I’ll say it again. Even if we don’t always feel it, we have power intrinsic to our roles as social workers. We have power in relation to people who use services is enormous. When we don’t recognise that, we do those who rely on us a disservice. If you don’t enjoy the job or feel disempowered by the organisation you work in, try another role or another setting but don’t let those who rely on you, suffer or feel the backlash of your own disillusionment. They deserve better. You deserve better.
- Social work has given me an understanding of the world and the society I live in. I have had the privilege of walking with people through some of the most intensively difficult, personal and private areas of their lives and being in a position to offer a range of things, from a package of care to a kind word. Yes, sometimes I’ve had to take action which has been unwelcomed — often, when I practiced as an AMHP (approved mental health professional) and was responsible for making decisions about detaining people under the Mental Health Act against their will. I was able to try, as far as I could, to make an awful, traumatic experience and experiences, as human as possible as far as I could. We have to work within organisations and sometimes I felt the decisions forced on me were not the ‘right’ ones, when I was asked, for example, to follow budget constraints regarding provision of care where I thought someone needed more than the local authority was offering. Even though this challenged me, the role enabled me to carry out the ‘will of the state’ in the kindest way possible and that was how I reassured myself. We can sometimes hate some of the actions we take and are asked to take and those who are subject to our actions certainly have the right to hate us, hate our organisations and resent us but we can always try and make every interaction kinder and more human — whatever the circumstances. That is an enormous privilege.
- Social work has given me broad knowledge base of parts of our world that I would never otherwise have any understanding of. I have seen the circumstances in which people live in and strive and struggle and it has given me a sense of gratitude for all that I had. I realise there is nothing noble in this. I have just seen so many people that I have developed such admiration for struggle from day to day and deal with tragedy, loss, challenge with such fortitude and dignity that I feel I owe it to those who I work with and have worked with as service users to respect and appreciate every single thing that I have and can enjoy.
Grumbling happens. Of course it does. It happens in all jobs and all roles. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t have ebbs and flows of enthusiasm but amid the grumbles, we also have to step back and think of the wonder, opportunities and privilege that this job — this profession- can give us.