Career Clinic: Should I live near my clients?

Go to CareSpace to debate whether social workers should live near their clients

Question: I am moving to live in the same area where I am starting a new job as a social worker. Is this a good idea or will I never be able to escape from work, always being accessible and available to my clients?

Answer: Working and living in the same area is more likely to be a chance to enhance personal and professional lives rather than being a threat, although I know quite a few colleagues who have taken a decision, despite the costs, of living away from where they worked.

The obvious personal costs of living some distance from work are the time and expense (and the increased carbon footprint) of having to travel to and from work, especially during the rush hours, and these costs are increasing.

The professional costs are not having the same knowledge and “feel” of the community where you are working. Living and working in the same patch is likely to bring more understanding of community networks, strengths and tensions and of the resources which can be mobilised on behalf of service users.

In most of my work roles as a social worker, team manager and then senior manager and social services director I have lived within the communities where I have worked, and found this enriched my work and non-work life.

Indeed, through out-of-work activities it may be possible to be a contributor to the pool of community resources, drawing in people who might be socially excluded if, for example, this includes helping to run activities for young people such as children’s sports teams, being active within parent-teacher associations, contributing to social and cultural clubs, or being a good neighbour.

Rarely do service users abuse the accessibility which comes with living and working locally. If this should happen, an explicit discussion setting parameters and changing expectations is likely to resolve the issue. But if it should continue, drawing in a manager to emphasise acceptable boundaries of behaviour and how contact should be handled by the service user is a means of reinforcing the message and also of getting managerial support.

Exceptionally, there can be more extreme difficulties in living and working locally. I can recall, in more than 40 years, only two occasions when harassment and risk was experienced by colleagues working and living in the same area. In both instances even if the colleague had lived some distance away there was likely to have been a threat anyway.

The first related to a social worker who was seriously threatened by a pimp when she was leading on care proceedings to protect young girls who were trapped in prostitution. Action had to be taken to move the social worker to a safe and secret address. The second example also related to care proceedings and to mental health services, where a team manager had his car vandalised.

Both threats required a response from senior managers, the police and the courts to confront and tackle the threat and danger.

There are neighbourhoods where most people would choose not to live, so living and working on the same patch should not be a requirement of the job. But for most of us, as with GPs, teachers, community nurses and police officers, if we live and work in the same area it is more likely to be enriching than threatening.

Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London, and is a former director of social services and BASW chair

Readers’ views: Bob Holman has a long history of working in the middle of deprived and struggling communities. Are we not, after all, employed to work with people, so why is it a problem to also live among them? The same arguments could be applied to all workers in other fields. From Rupert M on CareSpace

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