Slowly But Surely

Campbell Killick is a research and development officer
for social work at Down Lisburn Trust in Northern Ireland. He is
investigating ways to promote reflection and critical

In a world driven by haste some things cannot and should not be
sped up. At the risk of sounding like the script of an
advertisement for a Dutch lager, this premise – which emphasises
the dangers of a quick-fix – has been developed by journalist Carl
Honor’ in his book, In Praise of Slow. Although Honor’ does not
apply his principles specifically to social work, his book contains
important messages that could benefit the profession. His
principles strike a chord with existing practice, theory and
research, and extol a style of social work that is more
client-centred, more effective and better for practitioners.

Honor’ expands on the concepts of “fast” and “slow” to encompass a
range of values. He writes: “Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive,
hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active,
quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful,
receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective,

This definition of slow is far from lazy and listless. Applied to
social work, it represents a balanced and reflective approach to
unique and complex problems. As the profession is faced with
increasing pressures and limited resources there is value in
promoting slow social work.

Slow social work represents a more holistic and client-centred
approach. Faced with growing caseloads, interventions are in danger
of becoming increasingly superficial, where the focus narrows to
practical administrative functions. When services become risk-led
or resource-led the client can quickly become excluded from the
planning process. Fast social workers feel the need to impose a
solution at the earliest opportunity. Slow social work involves a
difficult balance between active and passive roles to share control
and power between provider and user.

Research suggests that people who receive social work support judge
the worker on their personality and attitudes. Spratt and Callan
found that parents receiving family and child care services
described “good” workers as “open”, “honest” and “easy to talk
to”.(1) The worker’s ability to empathise and communicate was also
valued over procedural competence. In supporting individuals and
families whose difficulties are often long-term or permanent, the
slow social worker recognises that time is one of the most
important things that they have to give.

Slow social work is potentially a more effective approach. There is
little doubt among writers and planners that reflection, evaluation
and staff development are essential components of good practice at
individual, team and agency level. Sadly, these components are
often the first victims of fast social work as the educational
elements of supervision and team meetings give way to more
immediate issues.

In a study of social workers’ decision-making, Nurius and
colleagues identified time and pressure as the primary factors
compromising sound reasoning.(2) Participants described how
excessive demands on their time led to “limited planning and highly
reactive decision-making”. Practitioners are increasingly required
to base their interventions on sound practice evidence, but studies
show they are unwilling or unable to find and make use of relevant
knowledge and research findings. Michael Preston-Shoot suggests
that one possible factor might be “pressure to conform to agency
prescriptions [which] can result in unquestioning practice.”(3)
Fast social work puts procedure before people.

The inquiry into the case of Frederick McLernon, 81, who took his
own life in March 1997, shows that an inflexible approach can be
dangerous.(4) The coroner asked that the Social Services
Inspectorate investigate the involvement of the local health and
social services trust in Northern Ireland. One of the 50
recommendations focused on “professional judgement and
flexibility”. It recommended that “guidance on the use of care
assessment criteria should include explanatory information about
the role of professional judgement in the application of criteria
and should indicate the scope for flexible approaches, particularly
in relation to the client’s own perception of their needs”.

Slow social work is better for practitioners. It recognises the
complexity and uncertainty of human experience and challenges the
worker to acknowledge the dilemmas and fears that they face.
Engaging in a critical thinking process can assist practitioners to
make the best use of information that is subject to change and
contradictions.(5) Slow social work frees the worker from issues
over which they have no control while the blame culture of fast
social work leads to fear, stress and a cover-your-back approach to
intervention. Staff burn-out has been linked with pressures of
work, but equally with a dichotomy between the worker’s ideals and
the actual outcomes of intervention.(6) Fast social work takes its
toll on staff morale, health and well-being. The result is high
staff turnover which causes fast social work practices.

When things go wrong social services are often criticised for being
slow to react. In reality the issue is not the speed of response
but the workers’ or the agency’s perception of the dangers and
their interpretation of the available information.

Slow social work should not be confused with careless or lazy
practice. In fact, it requires a significantly greater investment
of time, energy and resources. It needs commitment from the
individual worker but also from their manager and agency. To think
critically, workers must be allowed to be uncertain and to question
preconceptions. A slow approach to social work is not possible
without a similar approach to supervision and management.

The term “slow social work” may be new but the practice is not.
Since the birth of the profession, practitioners have been taught
or have discovered for themselves the value of a reflective and
client-centred approach. Current literature includes a range of
local and international initiatives promoting these

The Australian state of Victoria’s department of human services has
introduced a pilot programme to support new child protection
practitioners, with supervision and critical reflection identified
as essential elements. The unit aims to equip and support staff in
their role, and promotes reflective practice to enhance service
delivery. The programme was evaluated highly by workers and
managers and the programme has been implemented across the

has gone as far as to suggest that “performing a task
in a slow manner often yields faster results”. This is not true for
social work but perhaps slow social work yields better results, for
service users, practitioners and employers. CC


Carl Honor
s book, In Praise of Slow, argues that some aspects
of life cannot and should not be sped up. This article applies the
argument to social work and suggests that “slow social work” could
be a more effective and client-centred approach to intervention
that would benefit practitioners and employers.


(1) Trevor Spratt and Jackie Callan, “Parents’ Views on Social
Work Interventions in Child Welfare Cases”, British Journal of
Social Work,  34 (2), pp199-224, 2004 

(2) Nurius, Kemp and Gibson, “Practitioners’ perspectives on
sound reasoning: adding a worker-in-context component”,
Administration in Social Work, Vol 23(1), 1999  

(3) Michael Preston-Shoot, “Why social workers don’t read”, Care
and Health, issue 11, March 2002  

(4) Social Services Inspectorate, Community Care from Policy to
Practice – The Case of Mr Frederick Joseph McLernon (deceased),
Department of Health and Social Services, 1998 

(5) Adams, Dominelli and Payne, Critical Practice in Social
Work, Palgrave, 2002 

(6) C Stalker and C Harvey, Professional Burnout in Social
Services Organisations: A Review of Theory, Research and
Prevention, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada, 2002

Further Information   

Contact the author   

E-mail or
phone 0284 451 3940

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