Of course giving every social worker a desk of their very own is not a solution to the serious workplace issues faced by the profession but it is an indicator of how we are perceived and valued by our employers. In a report published this week by Dr Jermaine M Ravalier of Bath Spa University supported by BASW and the SWU he concludes ” that working conditions for social workers across the UK, irrespective of job role, are extremely poor”. Later in his report he goes further to describe them as “unacceptable” and likely to lead to both physical and mental ill-health. I know this to be true at both a personal level and anecdotally. So it’s not news but a good supportive piece of research nonetheless. But will it get us any further in making the changes required. As a profession we have been complaining about our work conditions for years. No one apparently listens and successive politicians and managers tighten the noose when there is a tragedy or mistake.
Can history, looking back, help us at all? I try not to look back over 50 years using my rose-coloured specs but to be more objective about how the past could help this undoubted crisis in our profession. First can I dismiss any debate about training, initial, continuing or anything else. Our training is good for the most part and is always an easy change target. Better than my training? Different but still relevant to the job. The good news is that Ravalier’s report highlights that we are “highly engaged with our job” despite the other negative aspects of our world. So our motivation is high, we want to help our very vulnerable members of society to improve their lives and we have the skills to do this. We do not according to the report even want lots more money! BUT, there is always a BUT in my writing. This BUT is that the systems and structures of our working world are, in my opinion, rubbish, as they almost exist as a separate entity and certainly are not fit for the purpose of getting the social work job done. The public image and perception of our work is equally bad but that is for another blog.
The first thing we need to do is to turn the whole thing on its head. We need to return to the principle of the primary task so eloquently described by the late Richard Balbernie in Residential Work with Children 1966. It is the task that the enterprise must perform to survive. Social work has lost sight of it’s primary task, it is clouded by the agenda’s of many stakeholders, politicians, local councillors, Ofsted, managers, private enterprise shareholders and owners to name but a few. Each of these groups require information and proof of outcomes that suit their individual enterprises, so we as social workers have our working days defined not by the needs of our clients but by the agenda’s of others. We know why we joined the profession, we know why we get up in the morning and go to work, we know what we want to achieve together with our clients. We need to help others refocus on the social work task thus regaining control of our profession. We need to move back to the days I remember when the public understood what social workers did and thought it to be a highly regarded occupation.
Regaining control will mean reassessing how all management systems service that task, how processes need to behave in order to achieve our assessed and agreed outcomes for the client. This means that timescales,for example, will be set by the work we are doing not by outside influencers. We will be judged by those outcomes. Inevitably then there will be a shift to individual social workers taking responsibility for their own success or failure. The days of social workers blaming managers who do not understand their work will be gone and as professional individuals we will stand accountable to the public and to our employer. Taking professional control should then reduce caseloads, improve impossible timescales, and provide client centred administrative systems. Yes we will still face computers, fill in forms and provide quantitive data but we will be clear about why. Sadly I don’t think that anything will stop us having to work long hours some days, unsocial hours on others and occasionally when we are not feeling 100%. That is the nature of the work and the spirit of a social worker.
Let’s think about our immediate work environment for a moment. I have worked in some awful old buildings mostly now sold off by local authorities and I have worked in newly built call centre style offices. The former may have been cold in the winter but were more conducive to the task than the modern call centre environment. If we are to be able to provide the reflective and responsive supervision that being a social worker requires to develop personally and achieve professionally then we need supervisors at least to have their own offices. Spaces that have to be booked in advance may be fine for tasks that are more predictable in nature but frequently there is a need for space to talk and think with a senior/supervisor/manager on return from a visit in the here and now. Ravalier does state that peer support among social workers is good and the cynical part of me thinks that we have had to develop this in the face of such poor working conditions. I have had many supervision sessions going through a spreadsheet to see if I have completed all my timescales and never discussing the client or my direct work. However, back to the desks, hotdesking is a non starter. I do not want to share a computer or office space with trading standards, though I am sure they are very nice people. What does that do to confidentiality or should I have peer conversations in my car or the corridor? Hardly professional behaviour. Our employers clearly do not understand the nature of our work. I want to be able to come back to my own space and think and write, analyse and discuss, share despair and delight, understand and be understood, offload and relax. I am a professional dealing with complex life changing work and my employers should treat me as such not as a local authority bureaucrat. Thankfully I have had this, now a luxury, all my working life and I cannot emphasis enough the value of sharing an office with my peers and having my own desk. This applied equally when I was a manager, having my own office and being able to be available when staff needed me or when difficult conversations were required.
These things were there for me in my early career as were administrative staff who understood the task, knew my individual clients, reminded me of deadlines, made me tea when I was upset after taking a child away and provided a dedicated service to a small group of staff and their clients for consistent periods of time. They were an invaluable support in good customer service. My managers were engaged with my work, they knew my clients, they remembered events in the young people’s lives and asked about their progress outside of any formal arrangement. It felt as if they were in this collaborative effort on the part of the organisation, working with me not against me. In this weeks PSW there is an article from Dr Andy Gill, the new chair of BASW England where he talks about slowing things down and returning to what brought us to the profession in the first place. I recommend it to you.
Let us turn things around. We can do this but we need to maybe look back to refocus on what really matters, to rediscover why the profession began, remains necessary, and why we choose to work in what should be the 4th emergency service( apologies AA). By reclaiming our professional place we will significantly improve the outcomes for those we help and so many things will come right for us too.
UK Social Workers: Working conditions and Wellbeing. Dr Jermaine M Ravalier. Bath Spa University pub 14.7.17 email@example.com
Slow down, you’re moving too fast. Dr Andy Gill. Professional Social Work pub British Assn of Social Work. July/August 2017 http://www.basw.co.uk
Social Workers Union. firstname.lastname@example.org
Residential Work with Children. Richard Balbernie. Pergamon 1966