Social workers intervene in people’s lives at points of crisis. On a very regular basis, we are dealing with other people’s trauma, distress and heartbreak. Sometimes we become the traumatised ones. This is recognised in many of the professions that deal with the pointy end of society’s ills. So what is unique about social work? Why is it that the profession is constantly suffering a recruitment and retention crisis?
It’s not easy to prepare for the realities of social work. There will be individuals who do the training with all the right intentions, only to find the job is just not for them. I’m not referencing those people here, I’m talking about the thousands of experienced social workers who are currently outside the profession and have thoughts of returning.
I was one of those social workers, until recently. I was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in the national Come Back to Social Work programme, a pilot scheme run by the government, the chief social workers and the Local Government Association. There were nearly 200 applicants and from this 20 individuals were selected.
‘We felt safe’
The problem with returning to social work is you can’t do it without first facing the issues of why you left. It’s difficult to deal with those issues when you’re outside the profession. Even for those who left social work amicably, for family reasons perhaps, they can still have a lot of reservations about how social work will fit in with their lives.
When you leave you also often become isolated from people who were once your support network. Talking about the emotional impact of social work with people who have never experienced it is tricky – you get a lot of ‘that’s such a terrible job’. This reinforces the feeling that wanting to go back is foolish and does nothing to help you unpick the very real issues you need to address to be able to move forward.
At our first group coaching session, all the hurt, shame and unexpressed anger and helplessness start to come out. Several people cried. Back among our own kind, we felt safe to be honest for the first time about our social work journeys.
Everyone on the course worked extremely hard. Some came the length of the country and many were balancing current jobs or caring responsibilities. We had to learn about legislative and policy changes, as well as the current implementation of frameworks and theories. We also had to measure ourselves against the Professional Capabilities Framework and the HCPC Standards of Proficiency, to prove we were fit to practice.
More than this though, we needed help with reframing our past, preparing for job interviews and building resilience. This is what the coaching sessions were for. They did feel uncomfortable and prying to begin with, but once you stopped fighting your coach it was surprising the insights they could lead you to. I would recommend coaching to anyone who is considering a life or career change.
A WhatsApp group was formed so we could support one another. It felt good to be part of a team again and to be able to bolster the professional confidence of our peers. We had many discussions about how we could maintain a work-life balance when we returned. We also reflected on shadowing experience and debated the different social work roles. Challenges were deliberated and solutions crowd-sourced. When the portfolios were approved and HCPC registrations confirmed, we celebrated together.
So what learning can be gathered from this experience?
Updating knowledge and practice is the easy bit and if a couple of local safeguarding boards and a university teamed up they could do this with little issue. But I caution against solely using this approach. Many social workers looking to re-join the profession have difficulties they need to address and it’s difficult to do this while engaging with training provided by their potential or new employer.
There needs to be some provision made for coaching and supervision to take place in a safe space. Opportunities for peer reflection and support also need to be built into the programme. Without this the people who return to social work may still be carrying the same baggage as when they left. This will impede their resilience.
There needs to be more joined-up thinking when it comes to social work retention. It’s expensive and time-consuming to train social workers from scratch. The average time a social worker spends in post is just seven years. In many teams, more than 60% of the social workers have been practising for less than two years. The profession, the public and vulnerable people need experienced social workers to come back.
I fear that the reason we don’t have a joined-up strategy is because even those in the profession don’t believe that people want to come back. The number of applications to a small-scale pilot in one locality demonstrates that this perception is wrong. Social work is an extraordinary, rewarding and exhilarating career practised by an incredible workforce. I feel privileged to once again stand among them.