We’re all aware of the huge challenges facing social workers in England, with high caseloads, high vacancy rates and increasing demand against a backdrop of ever-dwindling resources. But we are also aware of the fantastic work being done by social workers up and down the country and the many people whose lives they’ve turned around. This World Social Work Day, Community Care has spoken to social workers who have practiced all over the world to find out what challenges we share and in what areas our practice feels worlds apart.
Happy World Social Work Day.
Tony Widmer and Antonina Dashkina
Formal social services have been going in Russia for under 20 years, with the first specific legislation being introduced in 1995. This year, the first new legislation since Russian social work’s birth was introduced to respond to the changing times.
Theory not practice
There are around 150,000 qualified social workers in Russia, each of whom will have undergone a five year degree programme based heavily in theory and psychology rather than in practice. There is no registration of social workers and the title is not protected.
Many of the challenges facing social workers are similar to those in the UK – high caseloads and stress levels, issues around retention and considerable budget cuts. In Russia there is a growing emphasis on supporting social workers, teaching them to manage stress and caring for their personal wellbeing. On a regional level there are various provisions ranging from free medical checks and burnout courses to free holidays for social workers’ children. There are also special institutions where social workers can go on intensive post-qualifying courses to improve their practice.
No formal supervision
However, there is no formal supervision and that has been a problem. The majority of support is on a peer group level and peer mentoring is heavily encouraged.
Like in England, a combination of increasing demand and decreasing resources has meant we have had to focus much more heavily on needs assessments. It was always the case that all public services in Russia were free to everybody – health care, child care, schooling, higher education – but there is growing realisation that some services will have to be paid for. The new legislation sets out that we will have to assess and respond to people’s needs far more rather than just giving everything to everybody.
One of the biggest challenges facing Russian social work at the moment is responding to the needs of the 800,000 Ukrainian refugees currently requiring support.
Social services departments with local authorities began to be set up in Vietnam just three years ago. Prior to that it was mostly administered by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). It was voluntary, with no real structure.
Social work training has been going on in Vietnam for many years, based on non-governmental structures, but now social services have been brought within government departments the problem faced is introducing these social workers into the new structures. Like in Russia, the fledgling system means it is difficult for new social workers to learn in practice without practice educators who are familiar with the new system.
We’re now trying to use some of the people working in NGO centres to train people in practice alongside what will be local authority social workers, to get them up to scratch in practice and not just the theoretical base.
One of the major challenges in Vietnam is apportioning funding. It’s very different from the UK because, as a former Communist country, most of your funding comes from the region and not from central government.
The perception of social work in Canada tends to be positive in the communities we serve, although this is often in stark contrast with the sometimes narrow or negative views portrayed in popular culture. It is seen as playing an increasingly relevant and important role.
Encroachment and austerity
In Canada the biggest challenges facing the social work profession are encroachment and austerity, and the two are intrinsically linked. When public programs and services are being reduced, professionals like medical doctors and nurses begin to encroach on and absorb roles best suited to social work expertise. This is most acute in the Canadian healthcare system, in which social workers are often edged out of positions in multidisciplinary teams in an effort to reduce costs.
Regulation of the profession is a provincial and territorial responsibility. Consequently, the legislation varies in each of our 10 provinces and three territories. There are no national standards in place around supervision or caseloads, although there are guidelines. However, regulation of the profession is evolving and in the years to come, national minimum standards of required competencies to enter regulated social worker practice will be established. The natural evolution from this development will be national standards on supervision and case management.
Competition for social work employment in Canada’s major centres is quite fierce. In contrast rural and remote Northern Canada often experiences acute shortages of professional social workers and recruitment and retention is an on-going struggle. Locating professionals that have a grounding in the culture and history of the indigenous peoples of Canada is a continuous challenge.
Canadian social workers are typically grounded in anti-oppressive practice. Our 39 accredited schools of social work generally teach students to look beyond individual circumstances and to take a more holistic approach, locating the person within their environment and social context.
Social work in the USA is highly respected, having been a degree profession for more than 70 years. Social work isn’t just done in statutory settings, – social workers are in schools, hospitals, care homes but they are also in businesses and private practices – they can be considerably more autonomous and are seen as being on an equal level with other professions like psychiatrists.
The challenges are probably similar to those in the UK, although there is less of an issue with vacancy rates and the support tends to be better. One thing child protection workers face in America that isn’t such a problem in the UK is dealing with guns and gun violence.
In the USA it is acknowledged that social work is a really difficult job in which you are going to see and hear things you don’t want to, and so you are supported to do that work. In the UK, I’ve found if you feel the emotional impact of your work, it’s seen as a weakness and a personal failing rather than the product of doing tough work that requires good support.
My experience of supervision in the US was quite formal. It was seen as your right and a way to support and develop you, and so it wasn’t something that was ignored. In the UK, it’s the first thing to go when you’re running out of time – it’s often seen as a luxury rather than a necessity.
In supervision you go through cases and reflect on them, but there is also a big focus on personal wellbeing.
In the organisations I worked in, when we had vacancies, we would have hundreds of people applying. It was very prestigious to get into and people tended to stay a long time because of the support and development opportunities available, which helped with retention.
I did a liberal arts degree in social work, which meant I covered economics, political science, human biology, sociology and psychology before specialising – all of which built a foundation for social work. Working from the strengths perspective was all part of my training 20 years ago whereas we’re only just starting to get there in the UK now but I’m thrilled we’re moving in that direction.
In Northern Ireland there is a growing respect for social workers from the general public and an awareness of the challenging job they have.
Social work in adult services in Northern Ireland tends to be seen as an enabling, empowering role which protects those at risk of abuse and exploitation. In some communities social work in children’s services, however, is still perceived as “the welfare” that comes to take your children away.
There is clear interest in social work as a profession, which is evidenced by our many applications to the degree in social work each year. We have a very high academic standard and our courses are vastly over-subscribed each year.
In Northern Ireland we have an integrated health and social care system, but sometimes social work struggles to find its voice in multi-disciplinary teams that work on a medical model of care. That said, I think our integrated teams provide better care and support to individuals and we should continue to build on this model.
All social workers receive professional supervision on a regular basis, although this can be more challenging to arrange in integrated teams where the line manager is not always a social worker. We have developed a new supervision programme which encourages reflective practice, training and development, support, accountability, management and guidance on case work.
One of the benefits of working in Northern Ireland is, because of its size, we can work as a collective and develop country-wide policies and procedures, which ensure that there is consistency in the standards we set for professional practice.
Continuous professional development
Caseloads for social work vary and demand for services within Northern Ireland is high. Within children services we have developed a workload management tool that, if applied appropriately, encourages social workers to have manageable caseloads. There is no current caseload weighting system within adult services but this is being developed at present.
We generally don’t have the same problem in England with vacancy rates and high turnover of staff. This is helped by having a strong post-qualifying framework for continuous professional development.
Being a social worker in Northern Ireland is not without its difficulties and as we emerge from a post conflict society we face new challenges, particularly in relation to poverty, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, increase in mental ill health, families living with disability, social injustice, the breakdown in community support, increase in the elderly population and more people living with complex long term conditions requiring social support.