Reflections upon forty years in social work in England and Wales

Context

After about forty years in field social work – mainly in Wales, in local government, in the field of mental health – I am now retiring.  I have decided to put some thoughts together.

Helping

What is social work about?  Rather than refer to definitions and codes of practice prepared by others, I shall say what I personally think.

Fundamentally, social work is about helping other people.  It is organised help.

The person who wishes to start helping others, whether as a volunteer or as a paid worker, will benefit from three things: (i) training, (ii) supervision and (iii) working within the framework of an agency (whether this is an arm of the State or a voluntary body).  Indeed, these three things are essential.  They are certainly essential to social work.  They protect both the people receiving help and the helper.  They improve the helper’s practice.  They guard against misguided effort and indeed harm (to either party).

Helping people is rewarding; at the same time, it is actually a hard thing to do properly.  Numerous aspects need to be taken into account, such as these:

  • Does the helper know him/herself?
  • Has the helper any awareness of internal conflicts (perhaps arising from childhood troubles)?
  • Does the helper know the proposed recipient and his/her situation?
  • Does the helper aim to treat the proposed recipient as an equal (as far as is possible)?
  • Is the helper aware of, and sensitive about, the power differential that generally applies, between helper and recipient?
  • Is this helper best placed to help this particular recipient?
  • Is there someone else (eg a relative or a friend), or a different agency, that could help too?
  • Is there scope for two helpers or helping agencies to work together on the issues?
  • Are there matters, arising from the issues, that need to be taken up with managers?
  • Are there matters that should be taken up with government, with a view to policy change?
  • Does the helper make him/herself aware of risk factors and think of ways to deal with them?
  • Is the helper aware of agency policies?
  • Is the helper aware of budgetary restrictions?
  • Is the helper aware of changes in society that will affect the agency and its work?

Here are some rules:

  • Do not discriminate adversely against a recipient because of age, disability, race, gender, sexuality etc
  • Do not abuse your power and oppress the people you are supposed to be helping
  • Do not overplay your hand by attempting to “rescue” people: remember that (a) your remit is limited, (b) your skills are limited, (c) people tend to generate their own solutions to their problems – “rescuing” will sooner or later be perceived as oppressive
  • You may have specialised knowledge and skills that can help; the recipient is the expert on his/her own situation
  • Recognise the strengths of the people you are trying to serve; learn from them
  • Maintain a balance between involvement and professional distance: recipients are not personal friends
  • Think about ending the helping relationship, when it is timely
  • Consider the feedback received from recipients, whether through body language or comments; learn from it.

A triangle

Social work – where an arm of government is the employer – can be seen as having three main aspects:

  1. Direct contact with others – listening and interviewing, assessing and proving care
  2. Advocacy on behalf of others –vis-à-vis government, other agencies, people with power and influence
  3. Representing government and society, upholding laws, making authoritative decisions, sometimes going against recipients’ expressed wishes.

Rewards and frustrations

My experience is that, on the whole, people in the helping professions do their best.  Most are altruistic – they are not in it for the money. 

The helping relationship has its inbuilt frustrations: because there are never sufficient resources to meet all needs (or to meet all demands); and because of personal failings, on the part of recipients (unable or unwilling to make the most of the help offered), or on the part of practitioners (because of a lack of insight, a lack of knowledge, a lack of sympathy, or tiredness or sickness).  Sometimes, recipients are hostile; occasionally, they threaten the practitioner (or others).  Sometimes, someone one has come to know well dies – occasionally through suicide.

The rewards?  It is possible to build up a friendly relationship with most people, on the basis of mutual respect and shared goals.  Sometimes, situations get a lot better.  The good practitioner will give the credit to the recipient rather than to him- or herself; but positive remarks and thanks expressed by the people we serve boost our morale and help us to carry on.

The personal

Social work has meant lots of things to me.  It is stimulating.  It is tiring.  It means warm relationships with many users of the services.  It involves many close working relationships with colleagues, from various backgrounds, ie within and outside local government; it means co-operation, to achieve the best results.  It means accepting that conflicts will arise but also trying to resolve conflicts by means of an organised, sensible approach.

As time has gone on, I believe that social workers have become more sophisticated; but at the same time, the demands upon them have become heavier.  (Has society become more complex?  Well, laws and policies affecting social work have become far more detailed and demanding.)

The wish-list

There are a few things I wish had been in place during my time as a social worker, and that I wish were securely in place now.

Firstly, I wish that social workers as a body had been more skilled and articulate about explaining, to government and employers and the media, (a) their knowledge and skills and professionalism and (b) the limitations of their roles and responsibilities – especially during my first thirty or so years. 

Similarly, I wish that governments and society and employers and the media would avoid denigrating social workers – blaming them for social ills and personal failings that cannot be laid at their door and seeing things only with the benefit of hindsight.

I wish that the management pyramid could be inverted.  In my experience, a great deal of the relevant experience lies with the front-line practitioners rather than with anyone else in the structure.  When this is the case, they deserve appropriate respect. 

I wish that social workers were not constrained by useless, time-consuming bureaucratic demands and inappropriate computer systems.  These often have to do with counting numbers (measuring quantity): you can make numbers mean anything.  What is important is the quality of the work.  A quality assessment results in a quality service.  Time limits imposed on assessments are arbitrary and unhelpful – they get in the way of good work.

I wish governments and employers trusted social workers more.  Train them, supervise them, pay them, make reasonable demands upon then – then listen to them and trust them (within reason) and (on occasions) praise them.  Concentrate your attention on those who (for whatever reason) are not making the grade.

A word of advice to inspectors of services: ask the users of services, and the people who have taken on informal caring responsibilities, for their views.  It is their feedback that is the most valuable and informative.

So:

I think that social work remains rewarding.  It always remains hard.  Not for the faint-hearted, perhaps.

David R Harries

 

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