By Rhian Taylor, social work lecturer
It’s now six months since I left my role as a practice manager in statutory services to become a social work lecturer. Our third year students are started their 100 day placements, and I have been reflecting on what advice I could give them.
Risk can be positive
We all know that risk taking is a part of life, and particularly key to any periods of learning and growth – just watch a toddler learning to walk to see positive risk taking. However, for a number of well documented reasons in statutory social work we have become very scared of making decisions that involve risk. This is understandable to some extent – we are often making decisions on behalf of other people and when I look after my sister’s children I am more risk averse than when I look after my own.
But this tendency has gone too far and there can be a pressure to overestimate risk to avoid blame and the seemingly worse error of underestimating it. Some of my best social work has been when I took a risk and some of my worst has been when I’ve felt scared of making mistakes and acted defensively. Working with risk isn’t easy but try to be brave as well as wise.
Paperwork isn’t always bad
Paperwork. What can I say? There is too much of it. It takes away time from direct work. It contributes significantly to social workers feeling overwhelmed. I can’t really defend the quantity of paperwork in social work at present but I do have a few thoughts.
In relation to my first point about positive risk-taking, paperwork is important. The way you manage and justify positive risk taking for service users is by defensible decision making. When your records explain and analyse your decision-making you protect yourself and demonstrate accountability. In difficult times good paperwork can be an important friend.
Paperwork also gives us a break from some of the pressures of direct work. This is particularly important for us introverts who need to regain energy after demanding interactions. For other personalities, however, I know it can be incredibly restrictive and stifling. The good thing about being a student is that it is a way to test your suitability to a type of practice without the commitment of a job contract. If it really doesn’t suit you think seriously about the third sector which generally has less bureaucracy.
Social work isn’t all about the statutory sector. My partner’s whole post qualification career has been in the voluntary sector and I know that the impact he has had in being able to set up services, innovate and generally make a difference on a large scale, has been far greater than anything I’ve achieved in nearly 20 years in statutory departments.
Cuts and pessimism
It’s a difficult time for many statutory teams as cuts and constant restructures have a real impact on team morale. I used to get very negatively affected by the seemingly constant stream of bad news, even though some of these issues didn’t affect me directly. I thought a lot about the Alcoholics Anonymous advice for serenity where you are encouraged to accept the things you cannot change, have courage to change the things you can and the ‘wisdom to know the difference’.
Yet is this a cop out with regard to anti-oppressive practice? There is so much that should be changed and so much inequality. When the late Tony Benn was asked why he didn’t feel overcome with pessimism he said progress is made by two fires within us: the fire of anger against injustice, and the fire of hope that you can build a better world. That’s good advice.
Self-care and self-kindness
I hope you are getting good support and supervision but unfortunately for many social workers this is not the case, which is why it is important to get into good habits early. Learn now how to look after yourself -practically in terms of boundaries and time off, but also emotionally- in being kind to yourself. This is especially important when learning and making mistakes. Think about the strengths perspective and consider applying it to yourself as well as your service users.
There is a Buddhist parable which describes a man drowning in a pond. The person who saves him is not the person who jumps into the pond and flails in the water with him. The person who saves him is the one who stays on the side of the pond, on solid ground and helps him from this position. Think about this.
The writer Scott Peck begins the book ‘The Road Less Travelled’ with the sentence ‘Life is difficult’, and explains how we spend so much time and energy resisting this truth. Social work is difficult. It might be worth accepting this now; this placement, and your subsequent career will rarely feel easy. Yet this very difficulty is it’s worth. Social work is interesting, thought-provoking, challenging and there are always opportunities for growth and learning.
Good luck in your placement. I hope it goes well.
Rhian Taylor is a social work lecturer at the University of Kent
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