by Matthew Gibson
Shame is an emotional experience we all share but rarely talk about. Some scholars have gone as far as saying we live in a shame-phobic society, yet that doesn’t stop it being felt, or affecting what people do and how they do it.
By not talking about shame, we deny one aspect of our experience and fail to give and receive the support we need when we need it most. However, it is my view that shame is at the heart of modern day social work practice – from the messages that are given to social workers, to the amount of work they have to do, and to social workers undertaking tasks that they don’t agree with.
What is shame?
Shame is an emotion that relates to feeling that we are somehow flawed or not ‘good enough’. While it is a very personal feeling, it is a very social emotion, as shame comes from the messages and expectations of our culture.
What comes from the inside of us is our need to belong. It is from other people that we come to know what behaviours, actions, attitudes, etc. are praised and which are shamed within a certain group. As shame is so unpleasant and often painful we do our best to try to avoid feeling it. The personal feeling of shame is, therefore, dependent upon who defines what ‘good enough’ is.
What it means to be a social worker
Most social workers have a clear idea of what it means to be a social worker. They usually cite notions of building relationships, providing practical help and therapeutic support, all within values of social justice, human rights, and respect.
This, however, is not sufficient to be ‘good enough’ within a social work service today. There are many pressures, demands, and expectations placed upon modern day public services that have meant that what it means to be a ‘good enough’ social worker today is different to what it was years ago.
Who sets the standard
Broadly this has come about by changes in attitude to perceived failures by public service workers who are expected to never make a mistake while services should be more ‘accountable’ to taxpayers and the government by demonstrating efficiency, effectiveness, and value for money.
The underlying assumption embedded within these changes is that public service organisations and public service workers are not good enough and they need external controls to make them so. These are policed by government departments, auditors, and inspectors who publically shame social work organisations if they fail to meet these standards.
Government departments provide press releases, inspectorates provide ‘inadequate’ gradings, and the media amplify the message of incompetence locally and nationally.
Inevitably senior leadership teams seek to avoid being publicly shamed and change their organisations so that employees produce the evidence they need for a positive evaluation. An array of surveillance and monitoring systems are put in place which are used to decide if the social workers are doing the job well enough, with one who do not comply being viewed as incompetent.
Indeed, many social workers now face a range of meetings, panels, audits, and grading systems such as the RAG system (red, amber, green) or simply internalised inspection grades (inadequate, acceptable, good, excellent) which judge their work.
What is the consequence of this situation?
Social workers come into this work to make a difference in people’s lives. But they also do not want to be shamed while doing it. Inevitably they work to ensure they do what is necessary to avoid being shamed.
Compliance to the standards is now the order of the day with shame the threat for failure to do so, even without the time and resources to comply. Consequently, social workers can find they are often undertaking tasks that they do not think will help, can feel that much of what they do is not social work, or, in some instances, have to undertake tasks that they do not agree with.
They can, therefore, feel ashamed of not doing a good enough job in their own eyes and then be shamed for not complying with the organisational standards on every case. In my research, shame, or the fear of being shamed, was the experience that most often resulted in social workers becoming upset.
Being upset, however, was often seen as a weakness meaning some social workers felt ashamed about being shamed.
Understandably many social workers feel disillusioned with the current situation and are not sure if they want to continue.
In such a situation, social workers, managers, and even whole organisations seek to present a façade to those who have the power to shame. This hides much of the struggles involved in trying to meet a set of standards that are often seen as not helping to improve social work practice.
Indeed, one senior manager working in probation told me that her organisation had consciously decided not to try and achieve the highest inspection grading from its inspectorate due to potential negative consequences this would have on the quality of practice. This would come as a result of having to refocus time and attention away from practice-orientated tasks towards producing evidence – i.e. administration – for the inspection.
Social workers and managers are, therefore, left looking for ways of making a difference in people’s lives in spite of much of these standards.
My experience of organisations that have adopted new practices, such as the Signs of Safety, systemic practice, or even developed their own ways of working through the innovation fund, have had to do so on top of the administrative burdens imposed through the inspections/audits/data returns.
Social work may have its problems but one sure way of never solving them is to impose standards that have little to do with social work practice and then shame social workers, managers, organisations, or even the whole profession, when they can’t meet these standards. Especially when they have been given too much to do and not enough time to do it.
Any improvement has to start with a committed and motivated workforce, which means we need to turn the assumption on its head.
It is not the social workers, organisations, or profession that is not good enough, but the system of rules, expectations, and requirements imposed upon the social workers, organisations, and the profession that are not good enough for practice.
Only when we do this are we able to create a new system that believes in social workers, values their contributions, and is able to provide the support they need to make the difference they came into this line of work for.
Matthew Gibson is a lecturer at the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Birmingham.