So you want to be a social worker?

Sometimes I start Blogs and leave them half written in rambling drafts assuming one day I will get it out there. This one was no exception until last night. This will not be a very well constructed blog and one that is aimed at social workers and those interested in social work, but t is one thats bugged me and if I didn’t press publish now it would sit in my draft folder for another year, just needed to get it out of my system. If it reads as cheesy tosh please say so but I needed to explore this single question.

So you want to be a social worker?

Why? that has to be the first question. Not why as in “why an earth would you want to be a social worker” but why as in “if you don’t know why then you best work it out before you become one”.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been involved in a number of conversations about social work and social workers and what it means to be one, not just in a social care system but more importantly than that, what it means to be a social worker as a person. Can you separate the role and the person?

I was at a recent meeting with fellow social workers from across the country and there was a presentation about research and the need for social workers to keep themselves updated and immersed in the knowledge and thinking this brings. There was however a view in the room that people did not have the time to read and reflect on such learning and that fellow social workers did not have the time to disseminate and share such ideas and information. Whilst I am only to well aware of the significant pressures that currently exist in the social work world this struck me as a misunderstanding of what it means to be a social worker.

At the same meeting a few of us got chatting about the general election and someone told of a recent visit to a team of social workers. When the discussion had turned to the election it was evident that a significant number were uninterested and unaware of the issues let alone intending to vote. This not only struck me as odd but worrying. Social work if nothing else is innately political, informed by politics, designed by politics, promoted and or damaged by politics. The thought that social workers were unaware of and uninterested in a general election is deeply disturbing. I’m not suggesting that all social workers have to vote (though I don’t understand why they wouldn’t) or that they need to have a clear-cut political persuasion. They do however need to know the issues and the political world they live and work within, issues that will fundamentally shape the way they work and the lives of the people they work with.

Community Care recently published an article exploring the views of Clare Evans and her assertion that social work training is not taught in a way that is fit for modern practice. The article challenged the view that teaching “social policy and… out dated social worker theories” was no longer helping people and the delivery of social work. The article as you can imagine stirred some debate on Twitter and again raised the issue of whether you needed life experience before you should train as a social worker. Whilst I had some sympathy with the arguments that Clare posed the reality is that the non theory, non social policy approach is what social work has been delivering over the last 20 years. This world without a practice and theory base has delivered an industrialised social work approach that meets needs based on service options, commissioned contracts and ultimately risk averse practice. I don’t believe we live in a “post personalisation world” as nationally personalisation is not a reality for the vast majority of citizens who turn to social care. A reality in part that has to be accepted by social workers as their responsibility.

Not too long before Clare’s article George Julian in her blog Thoughts on being human…… had questioned the lack of social work voice in the post Winterbourne (let alone the pre Winterbourne), #JusticeforLB and transforming care world. George talks of “social works failure”, particularly in the Learning Disability world but I would suggest this is a perceived reality for many in many social work spheres. Is this the outcomes of a non practice based, non politically aware and industrialised approaches to social work (let alone social care)? When I wrote  my Blog Where were all the social workers I received quite a lot of flack that social workers had not been the cause and that social work was a role that had no opportunity to make decisions anymore. Whilst I accept that social work was not the sole cause it is the one cause that I and we have ownership over and as such still need to accept where were we with all our empowering and human rights thinking. With regards to not being able to make decisions anymore I don’t buy that, if you can’t see the decisions you make everyday then you need to have a bit of a harder think and make sure they were the right ones.

As a social worker you would instinctively know yet question this everyday. This is the very essence of what you do and the decisions you make within a framework of human rights, individual need, partnership and aspirations. This is wholly compatible with working for a local authority or anywhere else for that matter and to suggest that our actions are dictated  by our employers is to abdicate any personal responsibility as a social worker.

Some months ago I was chatting to a colleague about interviews she was running. The key question was how do you really understand the nature and values of the person you are interviewing and their ability to be a social worker in a particular role. This led to a lengthy discussion about what it meant to be a social worker and the agreement that it is a 24 hour a day job. Not 24 hour as in you need to work all hours god sends or stay late when there is a crisis to work through (although you do). Rather, who you are as a social worker is present for every minute of every day. You see the world as a social worker and define your conversations and points of view as a social worker. Hell you even comment on Eastenders or X factor as a social worker would and should.

The next set of interviews had the new question, “What does social work is a 24 hour a day role mean to you”? Maybe thats a question we all need to reflect on

I was lucky enough to attend the Social Work of the year awards last year and as some of you may know there were robust and vocal demonstrations outside the awards criticising social work and social workers. In the days leading up to the awards this was a hot topic in the office but one particular conversation really highlighted for me part of what it means to be a social worker. A few social workers were chatting to some other professionals over coffee and the protests came up in discussion. The response of the other “professional group” was that such behaviour and protest was disgusting, and a few more targeted comments, and that the police should prevent these people from protesting. To a social worker they all responded with ‘no they have every right to protest against us”. “God, only a social worker would say that” was the exasperated response of the others. There, says it right there.

The point must be that you are a social worker first and live your life as such before you are employed as a social worker. If we believe that social work is a vocation, a strong impulse or inclination to follow a path rather than just a carer then you must also understand that the social worker is who you are not what you are. If you understand that when the jobs not there the social worker inside still is, then you’re on that journey.

I was pondering with a colleague if this was a blog worth attempting and she said a few things that feel so true – “Social work is about having an innate value base and a fire in your belly to live it and practice it. This has been squeezed out of some and become industrialised in others, many a reason for that eh, but the key is releasing the Phoenix from the fire”. I think this summed up nicely what I was trying to get at all along.

There is not one type of social worker or one purest value base that makes us a single homogenous breed of either activists or state tools. There is however an expectation that we are there to enable social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance their lives and freedoms. If this stops for you at 5:30 then I honestly think you need to have a good old social work self-reflection session and if it still stops for you at 5:30 then I would suggest it never started at 9:00 am in the first place!

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4 thoughts on “So you want to be a social worker?

  1. For me interest and belief in others, compassion, concern, learning and laughing with others came before political awareness but either can come first. Understanding systems, local pressures, national pressures, cultural norms, politics and law are key. These things don’t stop at 5.30, but the job does! Totally agree, don’t do it if your heart or political beliefs aren’t there, but if you do choose social work for goodness sake do so with a smile and look after yourself! Thanks Mark for taking time to blog.

  2. hope the author of this blog is a member of Swan, or will join it double quick. Swan understands the vital importance of politics in Social Work. Theory and practice go together–if not something is wrong –having said that it was not until after I retired that I had time to go on a Keele course about the ethics of social welfare

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