Does having a hard life equip you any better for a career in social work? Kirsty McGregor assesses the pros and cons of moving from service user to service provider
“When I was growing up in care people always used to say, ‘you should be a social worker,’ and I thought why, just because I’ve been in care, does it mean I would be a good social worker? Why should it?” So says Lemn Sissay, poet in residence at London’s Southbank Centre, who grew up in the care system in Manchester.
There is a commonly-held view that people who have had adverse life experiences make better social workers. Ask why, and you will probably hear the word “empathy”.
In social work, having the ability to understand what a service user wants and needs is invaluable. And social workers who have used services themselves automatically gain that ability, or so the theory goes.
However, often the opposite is true. “Some people go through adverse life experiences and come out the other side a better person,” says Jonny Hoyle, chair of A National Voice, a user-led charity that advocates for young people in care.
“If you can take your own experiences and alter your practice, that’s great. But some people come through adversity with so many issues; they can’t help other people.”
Hoyle admits that many care leavers, for example, go into social work because they see it as a form of therapy, which might not be the wisest decision. “To see other people going through what they have experienced could be very tough,” he says.
It’s not just care leavers who go on to become social workers: former mental health service users and people who have experienced domestic abuse also follow this career path. However, most agree that former service users, like anyone else, can become brilliant social workers – as long as they are able to reflect on their own experiences and use them in a positive way.
One way to ensure former service users have the emotional resilience to handle social work is through the social work degree. The degree course teaches students to think critically about how their own views and values have been developed.
“What we each define as normal family life is going to be very different,” says Jane McLenachan, chair of the joint University Council social work education committee’s learning and teaching sub-committee. “Someone’s experiences will have an impact on what they think is good parenting.”
The key, says McLenachan, head of social work at De Montfort University in Leicester, is to teach students that there aren’t always cut and dried answers; judgements are formed by experience. It is also vital to ensure universities are only taking on students who could cope with such a stressful job.
“It’s essential, during the selection process, to assess the extent to which students can manage the personal and professional challenges social work will create for them,” says McLenachan.
“When we interview people who’ve been through care, for example, we’re assessing whether they can demonstrate that they understand what’s needed to be a social worker or whether they are still in the role of being a service user.”
The Social Work Reform Board in England is looking at the university admissions process, including how to assess emotional resilience, as part of its work to improve the degree.
It is all the more important because, without a rigorous selection process, social workers may qualify and then find they cannot cope with the realities of the job. This has an impact on retention.
“Employers feed back to us that they are concerned about how social workers manage when they move into the job, and about how many don’t stay,” says McLenachan.
“You make certain assumptions when people complete their degree, that they have some level of competence,” says Bernard Walker, director of adult services at Wigan Council and co-chair of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services workforce network. This, he says, is why it is so important to develop good relationships between employers and higher education institutions.
“Social workers should have enough insight to be able to discuss issues that are having an impact,” says Walker.
On the question of whether social workers should disclose adverse life experiences to their employer, Walker says it should be up to the individual.
Maurice Bates, interim co-chair of the College of Social Work, agrees. “It should stay private unless the person decides they want to discuss it with people,” he says.
“I’m not sure people who have had a hard life would want it to be highlighted.”
One of the college’s main objectives will be to improve training and supervision, but Bates says it’s also important to remember social workers are human beings.
“People are allowed the odd time when their emotions get the better of them.”
Case Study: Experience means knowing where it can go wrong
Anne Beales, who is now director of service user involvement for the national mental health charity Together explains why she thinks her experiences have improved her practice.
“As a teenager I was troubled by chronic depression and anxiety, which led me to have a breakdown in my 20s. I was on a psychiatric ward for a while and had contact with community mental health teams.
“I’ve had good and bad experiences of social workers, and I went into social work to try and make sure the things that went wrong for me wouldn’t go wrong for other people.
“When I’m alongside people who are angry, in a rage or disengaged from reality, I’m fine with it because I know it will pass. I don’t think it will because I have been taught about it – I know it will. I have the strength and resolve to carry on when things are hard, because I’ve been there. I think, ‘if I can do it, anyone can’.
“Of course you have to have training, but I’ve always found my problems have helped me to find resources, to know what might work. I also feel I have to write the best reports because I know the vital importance of the services I deliver. It can help you leave your own agenda aside because you know how critical it is.
“And in order to deliver something you have to be able to use and challenge the system, so the more informed you are the better.
“The danger is that you can burn out; you think ‘I couldn’t heal myself, so I’ll help everyone else and that will give meaning to my life,’ and you become a workaholic. But if you are managed well and you’re a team player, you can get through that.”
This article is published in the 12 August 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline Schooled in Hard Knocks