Working lives: Only one in team with social work background

Q: We’ve had a reorganisation and instead of now working in a team where my manager and colleagues all have qualifications and backgrounds in social work and social care, I’m the only person in my new team who has this experience. I’m anxious and feeling exposed. Is there anything I can do, or should I look to my employer to tackle my professional isolation?

A: One recent development in social work and social care is that our professional base has become stronger, albeit at a time when our organisational and agency base has become more fragmented. Our professional identity has been enhanced by having “social worker” as a protected title, with social work a graduate profession, with the requirement of professional registration and with renewal dependent on continuous professional development.

But with the demise of social services departments it is likely that social workers will be in multi-disciplinary teams with colleagues in education, health and criminal justice services.

There are also more independent social workers. So you are not alone in your experience of working in professional isolation, but it can be intimidating. It should also be stimulating and satisfying.

What is required is that we are more confident about our role and our core professional competences. This is a personal professional responsibility. We need to define the appropriate tasks to undertake as the social worker in a mixed team of professions.

The intention here is to make a tasty and satisfying salad where all the professions are separately identifiable and contribute in different ways to what is served to the public. We should not be aiming to make a soup where the blending of all the professional ingredients makes a dish where everyone has become the undifferentiated and all do the same tasks regardless of competences.

This gives a chance to champion the special contribution of social work and to create and protect the space for our own professional practice. The threat is of being marginalised or misused within teams and organisations dominated by other professions.

This is why in addition to our own responsibility to be clear about our professional role and task (on which the General Social Care Council has recently reported) we should also be joining with others in our profession so that we can collectively champion our special contribution as social workers.

Our employers should create in the workplace the capacity for professional reflection and learning, and for professional representation and advocacy. Having opportunities for reflection with a social work consultant in addition to line management supervision and continuous professional learning and development should be built into organisational structures.

Ray Jones is a University of Bath visiting professor and former social services director and BASW chair


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