What do we do when we do ‘social work’ – Ermintrude

I have started a new role in a new organisation over the last week. After many years in one place, doing tasks I had learnt to undertake, in organisations and with colleagues and managers I was familiar with, it was never going to be a seamless shift.

I have thought a lot about the community and identity I lost when I shifted jobs. Of course, I miss the people. I worked in a lovely, close team where we knew each other well because we often had to travel for work – so unlike previous jobs, I had spent late nights and early mornings with these colleagues, sharing breakfasts and after dinner coffees into the evenings. This created a community that I’d not experienced in a work setting before.

As I moved into a more ‘normal’ job, finding my way with new people, a new organisation and a new community that is established, I’ve pondered on what I have both gained and lost.

I work in a hospital now so that has its own identity and culture. As I’ve introduced myself to many people – colleagues and patients – I have automatically assumed a role (‘social worker’/’the new social worker’) which has given me a stereotype and identity to fit into, based on the experiences both staff and patients have had with social workers in the past.

As I introduce myself, around the place, I slip into a role that isn’t ‘me’ yet but just the outline of the professional role I have. In this context, I’ve had space to reflect on what being a social worker means, both to those I interact with and to me, as I have not had a job where there has been a requirement to be a social worker for over six years.

Social work has to be more than tasks which need to be completed. Social workers do reports or assessments of social situations or liaise with families. These are all tasks one doesn’t need social work training to complete. So what makes the work, ‘social work’, rather than ‘writing a report about relevant social perspectives’.

If we dilute the profession into distinct tasks we run the risk of making a case for the elimination of the profession in favour of constructing processes that we do by completing distinct tasks but losing the heart of the profession itself.

Am I a social worker because I carry out the tasks that social workers are expected to do? In which case, one sees the attraction of the fast track qualify-in-a-year and work only in one discrete area of social work practice, argument. After all, it’s cheaper to train people to complete tasks quickly and in one way, than it is to grow a professional that has a perspective, particularly, as I’m finding in health settings, where there is a need to have a different perspective. If I trained as a social work practitioner entirely in one setting and with one perspective, I would not be offering a professional perspective, I would be offering a trained perspective.

So back to what makes the profession, if it is to be more than a series of tasks I am expected to fulfil?

  • A learnt understanding of the impact of power on the relationships between those we work with and those we work for. This is so important in our role but is it unique to social work? I am not sure of it. Perhaps it’s an area we can develop to an extent.
  • A shared approach to values which is committed to a person-centred, strengths-based model. Now, that doesn’t always mean doing things that are welcomed. We have statutory powers in some contexts but we can approach unwelcome interactions from a person-centres perspective, indeed, we are obliged to. Having worked in many multidisciplinary teams though, I don’t think this is unique to social work.
  • A knowledge of legislation and policy as it impacts our work. This is vital but again, this is not exclusive to social work

All these things are necessary for social work but I’m not satisfied, from my own experiences, that they are exclusive to social workers – having worked alongside many fine nurses, doctors, OTs, support workers and psychologists. All with similar perspectives to mine (of course, I’ve worked with many who have different perspectives but that’s not my point here!).

The thing that I come down to is the generic training we have as social workers and the life course perspective that brings to us. When I qualified as a social worker I could choose to go into any area of practice because the qualification route is identical. If I’d gone into child protection work or adoption and fostering or working with children or adults with physical disabilities, learning disabilities or older adults and any other route that there is for social work and there are as many different settings as there are organisations who employ social workers, I would have had the same training. My distinction as a social worker is having a breadth of understanding of the interactions with the state function throughout a person’s life. That’s what makes my professional development different.

Social work training, although it’s a long time ago for me now, had a focus on the use of active reflection to constantly check, gauge and respond to situations that cannot be foreseen and to constantly strive to do better.

If we race headlong into increasingly specialist fields of practice at the point of training, we risk losing what social work is at the altar of becoming what social work does.

I’m not sure I have this right and over the next few weeks, months and years, I’m sure I’ll come back to it and the thinking of what the essence of the profession is, besides the tasks.

One thought I have had though is about the value in creating spaces and learning from those working across the profession rather than only in our own field or area or organisation or team. Whatever it is that we are, as social workers, we are most definitely stronger together.

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