Mark Doel investigates why groupwork can bring out the best in a team and individuals
Groupwork is one of the classic pillars of social work practice, with a long tradition and its own UK-based journal and international association.(1) Yet, apart from a few areas such as youth justice and mental health settings, there is a sense that there is a decline in groupwork activity.
Of course, we need more research to understand the true picture, but there is some hope in the fact that work with groups is one of the 21 national occupational standards for the social work degree in England. There is some evidence of increased groupwork opportunities in practice learning – both with service user groups and in group supervision for students.
Groupwork requires time for the group and to plan, prepare and debrief. So why is it worth it? For many coming to a group, it may be the first time they have met with other people in similar circumstances. It may be the first time they have had the opportunity to talk about taboo issues. The “all in the same boat” feeling combats isolation and powerlessness.
The complex and numerous dynamics in a group allow more possibilities for learning. Whether this is formalised in “rehearsals” or emerges from challenge and discourse in the group, the members can become a significant resource to one another.
In one-to-one work, the focus is almost entirely on what is wrong. In groups, members are often seen in a new light, with people’s strengths more likely to emerge. The playfulness and creativity of groupwork can liberate other facets of people’s personalities and help to focus on talents that may not easily be demonstrated outside the group.
Talk of empowerment in social work is commonplace, practice less so. The very act of bringing a group together shows faith in collective approaches to life and its challenges. The groupworkers are outnumbered by the group members, who – if the group is well-facilitated – can learn how to use the power of the group for the collective good and take this power beyond the group to make changes outside.
The primary purpose of a group is, of course, to meet the needs of its members. However, an important spin-off is the opportunity for continuing professional development for the groupworkers.
For example, it was only when I was co-working with groups that my practice was subject to scrutiny by a colleague, and we gave one another regular, direct feedback that was significant for our professional growth. The groups stretched us, so our practice visibly developed. Groupwork is a generic practice, relevant for workers across the whole range of human services; because of this, groupwork education can bring different sections of the workforce together.
Although a successful group can be measured in many different ways, the obvious one is group attendance. Assuming they have the option, people will vote with their feet. The likelihood of good attendance is improved by careful planning, which means that the need for the group has been well-researched and the offer of groupwork has been made to each individual before the group begins.
Research in northern England by the Groupwork Project has found this was a key component to success, giving prospective members and group leaders the opportunity to find out more about one another and their aspirations for the group.(2)
Preparing individual sessions, and debriefing from them, is another factor for success, though it is just as important to be able to respond to the mood and pace of the particular group session. This can be problematic for groups that are run to a manual – a prescribed format that often has to be followed tightly.
Although it can be useful to have some ready-made and tested materials, groupworkers must feel able to adapt them (and, where necessary, abandon them) to ensure that it is the group’s needs, and not the group programme’s needs, that are satisfied.
As well as the success of the individual group, agencies need to consider how they can develop a successful groupwork service. There are many reasons why an agency might wish to develop its groupwork services. As well as providing a qualitatively different service and the potential for staff development, a group can be a significant forum for an agency to learn more about its services, for example, through focus groups. Moreover, the skills of groupworking are readily transferred to teamworking. Many teams do not function well precisely because they are not perceived as groups, and team leaders and members fail to attend to group processes.
What is needed, then, is not just the odd group or two, but a systematic approach to developing a groupwork service, one embedded in the agency. One way to bring groupwork into the mainstream is to link it to a programme of continuing professional development. The Groupwork Project devised a training programme over a period of half a year, open to all staff in social work and social care, and beyond. All participants were invited to submit portfolios of their groupwork practice for assessment, which carried 60 credits at post-qualifying level.
The evidence provided in portfolios, though gathered primarily for individual assessments can, with proper anonymity, contribute to an agency’s audit of the quality of its services. The accounts of groupwork practice as evidenced in practitioners’ portfolios are a valuable resource for any agency wishing to develop itself as a learning organisation.
Mark Doel is research professor of social work in the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at Sheffield Hallam University.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
This article focuses on the advantages of developing a groupwork service. The benefits are seen not just in a qualitatively different service, but also in terms of staff morale, professional development and teamwork, and in the contribution of groupwork to the agency’s own learning about the people it serves. Practitioners’ accounts of the impact of groups, as documented systematically in portfolios, is seen as an important strategy to develop professional practice and to embed groupwork in an agency.
(1) Groupwork is published three times a year by Whiting and Birch and the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups
(2) M Doel, C Sawdon, The Essential Groupworker, Jessica Kingsley, 1999
Contact the authors