What service users want from social workers

What do service users want from social workers? Social work academic and mental health service user Peter Beresford says that research points to four crucial qualities.

What do service users want from social workers? Social work academic and mental health service user Peter Beresford says that research points to four crucial qualities. He will be speaking about the future of adult social work at Community Care Live on 16 May.


The crucial importance of the social work relationship

Above all else the evidence highlights that service users value the relationship that they have with social workers. It is seen as the crucial starting point for getting help and support on equal terms; for working with rather than on people. Service users talk of relationships based on warmth, empathy reliability and respect. It is the antithesis of form-filling approaches to assessment, which reduce the contact between service users and practitioners to a formulaic and bureaucratic contact.

It is not surprising that service users sometimes talk of social work practitioners as ‘friends’, not because they confuse the professional relationship they have with them with an informal one, but because they associate it with all the best qualities they hope for from a trusted friend.

Good social work is social

Positive social work practice with adults, as its name makes explicit, comes from a social perspective. It is based on seeing people’s lives in the round, not just their problems, not just what they can’t do, but also what they can do.

Service users talk about the strengths of social workers who see them in their community, among their families and friends and who don’t just interpret their problems as their fault – as a matter of individual deficiency or pathology to be blamed – but rather take account of the broader barriers and difficulties they may face.

Offering practical as well as emotional support

Service users particularly value the fact that social workers can offer both practical and emotional support. They bring the qualities of a counsellor alongside the practical skills of a hands-on worker. They know how to negotiate the housing and benefits system, fill in forms and sort out practical problems from debt to infestation. But they also offer ‘talking therapy’ and a shoulder to cry on, and don’t treat psychological and emotional difficulties in isolation from people’s real worlds.

However, the modern history of the helping professions has been to separate practical and emotional support, creating assistant roles to handle more mundane practical tasks. What service users highlight though is that through such mundane tasks they can build the trust and confidence to confide in social workers and be in a position to gain emotional strength from their support.


Service users frequently report how much they value social workers ‘listening’ to them. This quality or skill of being able to listen is the basis for much else that service users value. It makes them feel that they are valued, that their viewpoint has merit. It is the starting point for an approach to practice based on ‘co-production’ – the social worker working with the service user to find out what will help – the basis for all good practice.

When they talk of social workers listening, service users also emphasise the sense of not being judged. The social worker is both well informed and anti-discriminatory. Listening is much more than a passive quality. It is the starting point for an empowering approach to practice.

Delivering what service users want

The rise of managerialism and the adoption of care management have undoubtedly created barriers in the way of social workers delivering these qualities in social work with adults in local authorities. But these aren’t inherent problems for statutory social work. After all, local authorities have a strong tradition of encouraging community work, which has supported local neighbourhoods, citizens and service users, and fostered empowerment and anti-discrimination.

This approach sometimes means taking their side against their employers and other state agencies. Despite the challenges this tension poses, this community-oriented tradition needs to be rediscovered and social workers supported to feel that their first loyalty as professionals must always be to the people they work with, not those they work for.


Peter Beresford is a long-term mental health service user, professor of social policy at Brunel University and chair of service user network Shaping Our Lives. This piece draws on research findings from Palliative Care, Social Work and Service Users; Making life possible (2007, Jessica Kingsley Publishers) and Supporting people: Towards a person-centred approach (2011, Policy Press) by Beresford and other authors.

Community Care Live

Register for your free place at this year’s Community Care Live on 16 and 17 May to catch up on the latest practice developments in social work and social care and network with fellow professionals.

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