Heard the one about the Australian social worker and the Irish social worker using laughter to challenge the impact of austerity?
Many social workers say a sense of humour is essential to cope with the pressures of the job, the hoops and hurdles that must be jumped to get the right support for service users, or just complete a mileage claim.
But Debstar, who trained in Melbourne, and Irishman Jim McGraw (both are stage names) set out to show comedy could do even more at their first Stand up for Social Workers gig in Birmingham last year.
Making it social
The pair practice in different parts of Northern Ireland and only met when Jim realised there was another social worker doing stand-up and emailed Deb to introduce himself. Since that first lunch, where they realised they shared a similar outlook, they’ve performed in pubs and venues across the UK and are starting a new series of dates in Newcastle on Friday.
So what motivates them to use their annual leave to tour the UK and get people chuckling about the trials and tribulations of life as a social worker?
The simplest reason is that laughing together helps fellow professionals maintain healthy perspective and resilience. The duo’s tagline is “putting the ‘social’ back into social work”; going to a gig is the excuse you need to get together.
“These days, your team probably has a Christmas night out and that’s it – part of what we’re doing is helping people have that space to get together at another time and vent frustration,” says Deb.
Jim agrees the constant balancing act required by social work can cause strain. “You’re always thinking about the language you use, the risks you’re dealing with…we want to help people let their hair down,” he says as they both find time to speak to Community Care in between days of meetings and visits.
Challenging structural oppression
But there is also a deeper social justice impetus behind the shows. The comedy is never about service users; it’s about the system and how it treats service users.
“We’re often critiquing the contradictions between social work theory and what we have to do in practice,” says Deb, laughing at her analysis but also passionate about what drives her.
“I’m very politically motivated but I don’t like confrontation, so this is my outlet.”
Jim takes the same tone when talking about austerity and the impact cuts have had on public services.
Using comedy to highlight all too familiar situations helps get to the heart of the injustice they see service users facing.
‘Do as I say…’
It’s not just social workers who can appreciate the farcical situations they send up.
“It’s stand up for social workers – and anyone who wants to support social workers. Other helping professions and social workers’ partners will get it. Anyone who works in an office will recognise lots of it.”
Parts of their routine contrast what people do at work and in their private lives, which will probably raise laughs from social workers’ families and friends. “A lot of us can be a bit ‘do as I say, not as I do’,” says Deb, as she explains that doing stand-up feels healthier than pouring everything into a glass of wine at the end of the week. “We support others but are we emotionally available for our own families?”
Some of Jim’s jokes explore what it’s like to be a social worker’s child and he mocks himself as an older social worker who thinks he’s “down with the kids”.
Comedy builds confidence
Deb never imagined this would be the end result when she volunteered to do a 10 minute stand-up slot to make her local social work awards ceremony more fun. Her insides didn’t thank her for the experience, she adds wryly.
Jim got into performing in Dublin one night after running a training session and finding himself in a pub listening to an open-mic session. He put his name down to sign up for “the most nerve-wracking five minutes of my life”.
Now they are both agreed that getting up on stage has the reverse effect – the catharsis is what energises them. “This is my equivalent of running to the top of a mountain and screaming – but with laughter,” says Deb.
Would they ever quit social work to get the buzz of the stand-up circuit full time? Absolutely not, they both say. “I need to stay in social work to get my material”, laughs Deb. But it’s clear that the pair are passionate about their full-time work and being able to make a difference.
They have started to use their skills from this hobby as a creative way of working with different client groups – stand-up can be an incredible tool for building people’s confidence, they say. Jim is using this with former drug addicts and Deb is doing some work with a learning disabilities group.
While they joke that social workers can claim time in lieu for the continuing professional development opportunity offered by their gigs, Jim says they genuinely hope some will be inspired to find a similar outlet: “If someone comes to a show and wants to give stand up a go themselves, that’s brilliant.”
For those who don’t fancy literally standing up with a mic to stand up for the profession, Deb advises remembering the difference between being ‘responsible’ and ‘accountable’.
“We also need to learn to say ‘no’ and not see this as ‘letting the team down’. We often take on far too much, which can end up in letting ourselves down.”
Stand up for Social Workers are playing Newcastle on 20 November. More dates and information on their Facebook page and Twitter: @SUFSWs. £1 from each ticket sold is donated to the Social Workers Benevolent Trust which supports social workers in times of hardship. All proceeds from a raffle running at the gigs to win a holiday to Montenegro, sponsored by Netcare Training, will also go to the Trust.
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