Problems facing lone social workers

Social work practitioners often find themselves working with team members from other professions who may doubt their worth, reports Corin Williams

Sue Taplin worked as the only social worker in a multi-agency team in a Nottinghamshire hospice. Here she explains how she went about promoting social work in the face of scepticism from colleagues and clients.

“It was particularly important to explain the role of a social worker for some people coming into the hospice because they’d either had a bad experience with a social worker or they had learnt from the media what one did. When a nurse suggested to a client that they talk to a social worker they would say, ‘I’ve never seen a social worker in my life and I don’t intend to start now – I don’t need a person interfering’.

“When you are working as part of a team with people from different professions it is important that those prejudices don’t get in the way, but I would say that was more from the public than the professionals.”

Taplin had to take matters into her own hands and designed and produced leaflets to outline what social work meant within palliative care. This highlights the fact that there isn’t much out there to help lone social workers, and Taplin had to look for support from a small independent organisation rather than her employer or the main social work bodies.

“The main guidance and support I received was when I joined the Association of Palliative Care Social Workers, a national membership organisation for social workers working in hospice or palliative care settings,” she explains.

“We also had a welfare rights officer if there were particular issues concerning entitlements.

“Where you’re the only social worker in a hospice it’s invaluable to be able to meet up regionally three or four times a year, attend an annual training workshop and have access to e-mail and phone contacts.”

Social work is no longer the sole providence of social work departments. The seeds of the profession have taken root and flourished across the public, private and voluntary sectors. From patients in GP practices to inmates in adult and youth detention facilities, many more people are now being offered access to a social worker.

This migration out of local authorities has brought its own challenges for those who find themselves the only social worker within an organisation alongside nurses, health workers, teachers, youth workers or police officers. They are having to deal with team members who often have radically different training, expectations and ideals.

According to British Association of Social Workers chief executive Ian Johnston, an increasing number of members are contacting the organisation’s arbitration service about a conflict with colleagues who do not share their social work values.

“Across the board social workers are increasingly working in a more isolated way,” he says.

“They’re part of multi-disciplinary teams, they’re now working in children’s services in a different way, in schools, in mental health services. It is a healthy development in some ways, but it is possible that their values can become marginalised by a more powerful group who are much more motivated by self-interest than social workers.”

Young offender institutions

This sort of culture clash can be felt keenly at young offender institutions where social work services are increasingly being used, says Johnston. “Within the criminal justice system we would want to respect people’s dignity, individuality and rights. Of course the system may mitigate against that there’s an obsession with punishment, but often criminal behaviour is, at least in part, an indication of abuse or need for help.”

Social work’s independence in these situations is highly valued. “If you want to gain the confidence of people and tackle antisocial behaviour, you need to be seen at times as not part of the system,” he says. “If you’re part of the punishment regime it’s not helpful when you’re trying to help people to address their behaviour and feel secure enough to share things with you.”

Constantly having to defend your corner in a team without any backup can take its toll, and many social workers are having to look outside their organisation for professional support because their manager hails from a different discipline.

Johnston says that lone social workers need peer support to discuss issues with their colleagues rather than their managers.

General Social Care Council head of policy development Owen Davies shares some of Johnston’s concerns: “If you’re all working to different codes of conduct, that can lead to difficulties,” he says. “You may find in care trusts, for example, some of the people in the team will be NHS employees and others will be seconded in from the local authority, and so you will be working alongside colleagues who are covered by different disciplinary procedures.

“If you have specific professional concerns it can be a problem if you don’t have someone at the next desk you can share that with and talk things over,” he says. But Davies remains upbeat over the positive aspects of team working, though. “There are strengths – you talk to some social workers in those settings and they say the way in which they interact with their colleagues adds a lot to their understanding of the situations they face.”

Social care officer Steve Anslow, from the trade union Aspect, says isolation is a particular problem in mental health services “where joint teams with health can carry few [social workers] compared with community psychiatric nurses, and particularly where the manager is not a social worker and unused to or unaware of supervision”.

Social workers working with disabled service users can also be outnumbered by occupational therapists and rehabilitation officers, Anslow adds. “Supervision is the key to support for any social worker and more so where there is no direct professional support.”

To address the lack of support he says the GSCC should devise and publish guidance for lone or isolated social workers.

“There has to be more support/guidance in place and an opportunity to access experienced supervision, where professional or practice issues arise upon which the social worker needs direction and help,” explains Anslow.

Palliative care

Sue Taplin, currently a university teacher and lecturer, has seen both the positive and negative aspects of co-location while working from 1995 to 2004 in a Nottinghamshire hospice.

“I was the sole social worker in a team made up of nurses, doctors, nursing auxiliaries and volunteers,” she says. “My focus was providing social work services to patients and their families and carers, and setting up and co-ordinating a bereavement service. A lot of the work involved talking to people, using counselling skills and helping them to adapt to the situation they were in.”

Close working in that environment was essential and Taplin was fortunate in that she was part of a supportive team. “It was very important that we were all aware of our individual roles and responsibilities,” she says. “In palliative care particularly there is potential for crossover because staff do have more time to spend with people than they perhaps would on a hospital ward or in a GP surgery. A nurse might pick up on something that wasn’t part of their remit.”

Taplin was alert to the need for demarcation, however. “One of the things you had to be aware of was people’s expectations of you. Sometimes people would relate to a certain member of staff and then want that person to do everything for them.”

As the profession adapts to new settings and surroundings, isolated social workers in all walks of life will have to band together if they are to hold on to their values.


 


‘Prejudices should not affect work relations’


Sue Taplin worked as the only social worker in a multi-agency team in a Nottinghamshire hospice. Here she explains how she went about promoting social work in the face of scepticism from colleagues and clients.


“It was particularly important to explain the role of a social worker for some people coming into the hospice because they’d either had a bad experience with a social worker or they had learnt from the media what one did. When a nurse suggested to a client that they talk to a social worker they would say, ‘I’ve never seen a social worker in my life and I don’t intend to start now – I don’t need a person interfering’.


“When you are working as part of a team with people from different professions it is important that those prejudices don’t get in the way, but I would say that was more from the public than the professionals.”


Taplin had to take matters into her own hands and designed and produced leaflets to outline what social work meant within palliative care. This highlights the fact that there isn’t much out there to help lone social workers, and Taplin had to look for support from a small independent organisation rather than her employer or the main social work bodies.


“The main guidance and support I received was when I joined the Association of Palliative Care Social Workers, a national membership organisation for social workers working in hospice or palliative care settings,” she explains.


“We also had a welfare rights officer if there were particular issues concerning entitlements.


“Where you’re the only social worker in a hospice it’s invaluable to be able to meet up regionally three or four times a year, attend an annual training workshop and have access to e-mail and phone contacts.”

How do your experiences tally with what you’ve read here? Do you feel isolated among your team colleagues? Go to http://www.communitycare.co.uk/isolated to join the debate.


This article is published in the 28 August edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Only the lonely…

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