Ah, the advantages of living close to work: commuting becomes a thing of the past and you get a feel for your patch. But then you run into an angry client and then their relatives. Andrew Mickel looks at the pros and cons of working in your own backyard
Work-life balance sounds like a good idea: at the end of a busy day you can leave your job and get on with your personal life. But that’s less easy if you keep bumping into your clients in your local shops if every visit to the pub ends with clients’ relatives wanting information or if you are really unlucky, you have to run from clients for fear of what they may do.
This last case may seem extreme, but for Jo, a child protection worker who lives and previously worked in Nottingham, two close calls while out with her daughter caused her to move jobs to Doncaster, despite the hour-long commute each way.
“Nottingham’s huge, so as I lived on one side of town and worked on the other, I thought that would be OK,” Jo says. “But, once, I took my daughter to the fair and I was chased by a service user. I didn’t want them to know who my daughter was, because [my client’s] kids were on the child protection register. So we ran from her.”
Jo’s husband often asks whether she is being overprotective, but she says colleagues have received threats which have convinced her that she has acted correctly. “It only takes one to carry the threat out.”
The emotionally-charged nature of child protection means that those on the frontline face the most serious problems associated with living close to their work. But in other social care fields, life can be claustrophobic if you can never escape the people with whom you work.
Pete Bowler lives in Torfaen, where he used to work with adults. He now works in Blaenau Gwent, having found it difficult to get away from his clients and their worries when living so close to them.
“I’d go to Sainsbury’s and they were there. I’d go to my local shops and bump into someone so I don’t go there either – I’d end up driving into town just for bread and milk,” he says. “Not that there was a major problem, but you can’t just move on. You have to stop for a chat. If you have had a difficult day you want to relax.”
Simply telling clients to wait until you see them in work time is more difficult than it sounds. “It’s not something I could do,” says Bowler. “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable, although if they started talking about work specifically when there were lots of people around then I would generally tell them to wait until the next day.”
Living and working in the same area does have its perks. There is no commuting. You can get a better feel for the area and its people. It need not be the case that bumping into clients outside work should be difficult. Former BASW chair Ray Jones says being a social worker need not be any different from being a teacher or a police officer – you are part of the community.
“Three young lads we were working with from a family nearby would come to our house at weekends, sometimes going out with me and my two younger children,” he recalls. “It was not an intrusion, they knew when it was time to go and generally they were mischievous good fun. The general experience is that people are mindful not to make too many demands on people they know are a resource for them.”
These may seem like two substantially different issues – the possible annoyance of living near your clients compared with the potential risks that work can bring to your personal life. But Robin Weekes, the head of conduct at the General Social Care Council, says relationships with clients lie on a spectrum, and keeping clear professional limits with clients can prevent more serious problems emerging.
Weekes says: “If you’re living and working in an area and you become involved in social activities, you can stop and chat in the street. But that person could stray into professional territory and say, ‘by the way, I’ve got no money and my partner came around last night’, then that becomes a professional situation for you.
“You might genuinely need to support or offer guidance to someone legitimately, but if that happens then you should share that information with a colleague if there’s been advice given then put a note on the file and discuss it with a manager as well, even if you think you’ve got it slightly wrong.”
The extent to which you can interact with clients is a grey area. Weekes is keen not to be drawn about specific interventions in given situations, but largely comes down on the side of waiting and consulting a manager rather than intervening at the time.
“A trigger for me is, if the social worker feels at all uncomfortable, there’s probably something there to explore. Your job is assessing and judging people and it’s essential you maintain your impartiality in a case,” he says. “You need to be seen as impartial and objective. It’s that fine line.”
The strict approach of the GSCC is at odds with Jones’s experiences of interacting with clients. He points out that the longest lasting workers in a given area are likely to have local ties, often with the services they work with. He says the bad experiences are far outweighed by the potential positives, and the idea of professional distance has been overplayed.
“These boys were users of social services, were known to me and knew me through my work, and their contact with me and my family arose initially through work but was no more than how many others in the neighbourhood related to each other. Would it now be seen as inappropriate or unprofessional behaviour? I hope not.”
Living and working in the same area can have serious ramifications: the GSCC is now drawing up guidelines on professional boundaries following the issue of proximity being a cited factor in many social workers’ mitigation cases in GSCC hearings.
Jo, in Nottingham, says she would never work and live in the same place again. And Lindsey Ford had a bad time in her first job after qualifying, in child protection in Newcastle upon Tyne. Although she lived in a different neighbourhood from the one in which she worked, it was still a small area.
She recalls: “You weren’t supposed to work where you live, but Newcastle isn’t that big a city. So when I qualified, a couple down the road who found out what I did smashed my car up. I wasn’t even working on their case.”
Public enemy number one
Ford’s problems were compounded by the fact that she had a young son to worry about. “On a day-to-day basis you had to pick carefully what you were going to do. I couldn’t take my son into the city centre,” she says. “You’re talking about taking your child to school and being shunned. I was public enemy number one, and it meant my son never had any friends from there.”
Ford then discovered that a client had hired a private detective to find out about her. She has since moved elsewhere.
Cases like Ford’s are the rare exception and not the rule. So is it possible to work in sensitive fields such as child protection and still live near your job? Weekes – who used to be a child protection social worker – says it depends on factors such as whether you have a family. “But I don’t think there is an answer,” he says. “There is an issue about the social worker being a professional. If you are as good as you can be, abide by the codes and respect your clients, that reduces aggression towards social workers.”
But Ford says the risk is enough to make her err on the side of caution. “At the end of the day, it’s a job. I don’t want anyone hurting my son because of it.”