25 things I have learnt in 25 years in social work

Eddie O'Hara reflects on a career's worth of social work wisdom

By Eddie O’Hara

The following are 25 pieces of social work practice wisdom I wish a colleague had shared with me when I first qualified as a social worker, 25 years ago this year. This much I know about social work:

1. Don’t fall for the myth that social work is defined by where you practice and who you are employed by. Social work is defined by what you do and how well you do it.

2. Make social work values your friend. In times of changing professional and political landscapes, social work values will help you navigate new waters and in the process keep you sane.

3. Learn what key social work concepts actually mean, such as what is ‘harm’, ‘significant harm’, ‘thresholds’, etc.

4. Learn the social work fundamentals of differentiating between a child or adult ‘in need of support’ and a child or adult ‘in need of protection’.

5. Be kind to yourself and accept the fact however hard you try you will have days when you won’t always live up to your own standards, your clients do not expect perfection and remember you can always start again tomorrow.

6. Remember that although laws, policy and procedures are important, they alone do not support and protect vulnerable children and adults. It is your commitment and courage in applying these laws, policies and procedure which support and protect vulnerable children and adults.

7. Accept the fact that you will never have seen it all, heard it or know it all; good social workers are genuinely committed to life-long learning.

8. Whatever your career path, try to avoid losing your direct practice skills. If you do, you run the risk of diminishing your peer credibility and professional authority. Remember most medics, lawyers and educators continue to practice directly in one way or another until they retire and their professions are the stronger for it.

9. Be generous with your clients, not least in terms of the time you give them to tell their story.

10. Nurture and support your colleagues, even the dizzy ones! Social workers who nurture and support each other are much more likely to nurture and support their clients.

11. Be mindful of the power and importance of using language sensitively to reflect a changing world.

12. Treat every client with the utmost respect and courtesy. You are there to serve them not vice versa; always remember that you may have been a client once or you may be a client in the future.

13. Accept the fact that probably the best social work you will ever do will go unnoticed by your colleagues and unrecorded by your managers. That you know it was your best has to be good enough.

14. When things aren’t going as planned and you start blaming your colleagues start with looking at yourself first; ‘be the change you want to see’.

15. Recognise diversity and when appropriate celebrate it, but do not become defined by what makes you different. Despite our differences, we all have much more in common than separates us.

16. Do not tolerate any form of bullying or intimidation in the workplace. Deal with it positively but firmly.

17. Never underestimate the power and opportunities you have every day to positively affect someone else’s life for the better.

18. Remember that whether you are a social worker, manager, judge or allied professional, ultimately we are all on the same side and should respect and help each other in supporting and protecting vulnerable people.

19. Be wary of applying for jobs which sound very impressive, they rarely have a lasting positive affect on the lives of others.

20. Praise and celebrate the achievements of your colleagues.

21. Don’t forget Einstein’s maxim; insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Find the balance between persevering and changing your perspective and approach. It often yields surprisingly good results.

22. If you don’t understand something, do you own thinking first and then ask for help. You will learn much quicker that way.

23. Look outwards by using your professional voice to bring about positive change for others by being active in at least one professional or collective body.

24. Work-life balance is a necessity not a luxury. Learn how to turn off your phone, shut down your computer and enjoy a social life.

25. Be proud of being a social worker. It’s a great job; not least as every day you will have opportunities (however small) to make a real positive difference to your own life and the lives of others. 

Eddie O’Hara is an independent social worker www.eddieohara.com

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7 Responses to 25 things I have learnt in 25 years in social work

  1. Pete December 3, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    Quite simply: brilliiant

  2. Jim December 3, 2014 at 9:46 pm #

    I agree with Pete simply brilliant. Also a great list to help reflect over the past year and perhaps assist in developing your New years resolutions.

  3. Heather December 4, 2014 at 8:02 am #

    Some great tips for social workers. Positive colleague relationships are often overlooked. They are essential to maintaining morale. I for one will be taking these tips away with me. Thanks Eddie.

  4. Vivian December 4, 2014 at 6:02 pm #

    Great list. I agree with most because I also reflect when I feel caught up on emergencies and whether I’m too tired for this. I’ve managed #24 much better the past 15 years as Social Worker. I’m very pleased with myself being able to do so.

  5. Chris Sterry December 5, 2014 at 12:12 am #

    A great reflection and some great tips.

    A social workers clients will wish for support and guidance and that you are there for them. They are in need of this support and guidance to work in their best interest.

  6. Yasmin Robinson December 5, 2014 at 10:54 am #

    Absolutely wonderful to be reminded about what is really important in such turbulent times. Thank you for sharing your wisdom and reminding me of why I do my job.

  7. Sandie December 8, 2014 at 7:23 pm #

    Good read esp for myself a newly qualified SW..