Finding the missing pieces

If you ask social workers why they came into social work many
will say “to help people”. Yet the Department of Health’s personal
social services survey on recruitment and retention (March 2002)
shows that some field workers in social services departments feel
increasingly disillusioned and frustrated by insufficient
resources, too little time to spend with service users, too much
paperwork and a public all too eager to blame them for failures and
not recognise success.

Through the “human givens approach” social workers can meet service
users’ needs and increase their own job satisfaction. The approach
is concerned with the “givens” of human nature – our basic needs
and our innate resources for helping us meet them. Its main
emphasis is on emotional needs, not just for intimacy, security and
self-esteem but for community or connection (beyond the immediate
family), autonomy or a degree of control, meaning or purpose,
giving and receiving attention and what has been called “flow” –
utter absorption in a worthwhile activity.

The approach is so useful to social work because it maintains the
focus on helping people. It provides a simple framework for
assessing unmet needs and ways to allow people to use their own
resources to achieve change quickly.

Young people just taken into care, for instance, may resort to bad
behaviour in desperation to have their need for attention met (or,
if they have been neglected at home, they may have resorted to this
already). If they feel rejected by their family, they may think
life has no meaning and search to replace it through negative
sources such as promiscuous sex, drugs or alcohol.

When they are suddenly removed from their home into care, they lose
the connections they have made in the community. They have little
control over what has happened. And talents or interests they
previously enjoyed (flow) may somehow fall by the wayside in the
transition from home to care.

When this happens, we have to look at meeting their needs by using
the individual’s resources. The answers don’t have to be
complicated. In one care home, a young man with mental health
problems was discovered to have remarkable gymnastic abilities.
That simple discovery has not only led to many of his emotional
needs being met, but also a reduction in his psychological
difficulties. He started to attend a gymnastics class in the
community which instantly widened his horizons beyond the
children’s unit where he lived. Quite quickly, he was helping the
instructor in class, thus meeting his need to give and receive
attention. As a result, he had a purpose and sense of control over
his life, regardless of what had happened with his family.

Not all young people will have his gifts, but all have some
resources if we take the time to find them. Skills and interests I
have found to date include poetry, autograph-hunting, break-dancing
and acting. I was told of a young man who had removed the floor of
the neighbouring flat while the occupant was away and relaid it in
his own! You can imagine the difficulties that caused, and how
easily the skill he had employed in doing so could be lost instead
of used. Of course, he needed to see that his actions were wrong,
but his skill could still be recognised and channelled into work or

Sometimes social workers have no idea whether the young people they
work with have any specific talents; often workers become lost in
the crises in the young people’s lives that they have to respond
to. To redress this we are attempting to analyse the needs of young
people leaving care in five local authorities and create Pathway
plans for them, based on the Framework for Assessment and the human
givens approach.

Simple emphasis on needs and resources can do much to help older
people in residential care where, all too often, focus is on
meeting people’s physical needs, while emotional needs get lost.
Dorothy,* a devout 85-year-old Christian, was no longer able to
live on her own after a stroke and was admitted to residential
care. Here she was fed, sheltered and kept warm, but she felt very
low and “useless”. She tortured herself with the idea that she must
have done something wrong for God to punish her like this.

Using the human givens approach, it was instantly possible for a
social worker to reframe this view with the comment “In my
experience, God always puts people in places where he has a job for
them to do. Perhaps you haven’t found your job yet.”

The next visit revealed that Dorothy had taken on the role of
welcoming new residents to the home and taking them under her wing
to settle them in. Suddenly she had purpose and meaning in her life
again. This did not take additional social work time and the
solution speaks for itself.

The approach can even be used in child protection cases, if a
parent’s needs can be addressed without detriment to the children.
The approach still assesses risks but emphasises the positives and
strengths for achieving change.

For instance, Simone,* a single mother, started to neglect her six
young children after her violent partner walked out. Social workers
had repeatedly told her she needed to clean her house and get her
children to school, otherwise they would be taken into care.
However, they didn’t really look at what was stopping Simone. When
I reviewed the case with a social worker, it was clear that Simone
was isolated and depressed. She was giving all her limited
attention to her children’s needs and receiving precious little
herself. She felt her life was out of control, that she was a bad
mother and had been a bad wife.

The social worker succeeded in getting Simone to see that if she
had the skills to look after her children before her partner left,
she still had those skills. The social worker motivated her to join
a community parent and toddler group, which helped her meet other
women. She is now taking a basic computing course and her
self-esteem has increased. Not only has Simone become able to take
care of her children properly, because her own needs are met more
effectively, but she hopes to return to part-time work when the
children are all at school.

One of the concepts at the heart of the human givens approach is
the need to calm down emotional arousal before meaningful work can
be carried out. Someone who is acutely upset, angry or anxious
cannot hear what you say and only sees things from their point of
view. Just helping them take a step back can work wonders.

One social worker who had attended a workshop on the human givens
approach told me how a mother had rung her in a state of extreme
distress to insist her teenager daughter be taken into care
immediately. One moment she was ranting; the next she was crying.
After a while of being on the receiving end of this emotional
tirade, the social worker suddenly said, “What do you enjoy doing?”
The mother was completely taken aback but, after a minute or so,
said she enjoyed walking the dog. The social worker sensitively
suggested that the mother do that for at least half an hour, after
which the social worker would ring her back.

On her return, she was much calmer and willingly agreed to wait for
a visit from the social worker the next day to look at support and
help for her and her daughter.

What is crucial in all this – and integral to the human givens
approach – is to convey the message to the people we are helping
that we expect them to change for the better. When we do social
work day in and day out, and see some of the same people on our
case list for years on end, it is easy to feel, “this person (or
this family) will never change.”

Subconsciously, people read our expectation of them, and proceed to
fulfil it, whatever possibilities they might have had for doing
things differently. By concentrating on analysing needs objectively
and devising solutions, the human givens approach prevents us from
becoming mired in people’s moving stories of misery that take away
both their hope and our own.

One advantage of the simplicity of the human givens approach is
that it can help overcome social workers’ traditional fear that
they aren’t “expert” enough to offer counselling. Social work
training may cover various counselling models, for example,
psychodynamic, behavioural and cognitive. These might give social
workers the impression that any counselling needed should be
in-depth and relatively long term. On the contrary, positive
results can be achieved in any contact with a service user, however
brief. The skills to build rapport quickly, use imagination
constructively, and reframe a mindset to put a positive slant on a
seemingly negative situation, can all be learned within a human
givens framework.

Because the human givens are about the physical and emotional needs
that we all have, it works just as well in helping social workers
reduce their own stress. When I counsel social workers suffering
from work-related stress, I ask them to look at how well their
emotional needs are being met. We have needs for receiving
attention as well as giving it, and for connection and purpose
outside our work as well as within it. If we are suffering from
work-related stress, we may have no flow in our lives at all. The
human givens framework makes it easy to gauge our work-life balance
and plot out specific ways that, by helping ourselves, we can also
better help others.

Jan Little is a trainer for Mindfields

Background information

For information about the human givens approach and a range of
relevant seminars and workshops, contact Mindfields College on
01323 811440 or visit

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