Should there be a limit on what frontline social workers are exposed to?

Blair McPherson on becoming desensitised to ‘miserable and degrading’ situations

by Blair McPherson

“You shouldn’t do this job too long because you get used to things you shouldn’t get used to.”

These words were said by Nick Hardwick, the chief inspector of prisons, in an interview for the Guardian. But it could just as easily have been a social worker working in child protection.

Indeed, it could have been a junior doctor or nurse after another long Saturday night in A&E, a fire officer cutting the teenage bodies out of the wreckage of a car crash or a paramedic crew attending another drugs overdose. It could have been police investigating a paedophile ring, an inspector uncovering systematic abuse in a care home or a whistleblower on the ill-treatment of people with a learning disability.

Mr Hardwick spoke of gradually becoming desensitised to issues which should have outraged him. Continued exposure meant they no longer shocked him. On prison visits he caught himself thinking: “Oh well, they have only had two suicides since we were last here, good.”


So should there be a limit on what you’re exposed to? Should child protection social workers be moved to another area of social work before they become desensitised to issues like sexual abuse? Should those in crisis intervention teams transfer to other areas of mental health work before they start to accept a certain level of suicides as unfortunate rather than unacceptable? How do we ensure that senior managers in adult social care don’t become desensitised to older people lying in urine-soaked beds for want of timely assistance?

I recall an otherwise kind and committed team manager telling a case conference that the alert but very frail older person they were discussing would simply have to move her bed downstairs into her front room and have a commode placed there. A practical  solution to being no longer able to climb the stairs, but one that seemed to accept a miserable and degrading situation (or did you read this and think, that’s not so bad?).


Many of the cuts to residential care budgets, reductions in individuals’ home care hours, lowering of personal care budgets, or revised and tighter eligibility criteria, result in miserable and degrading situations.

Do those who agree these cuts lack imagination and empathy, or have they simply become desensitised? Is it now so common place for an older person to be padded up and obliged to soil themselves because we can’t provide sufficient visits that we no longer feel outraged at this situation? It’s shocking, but it’s difficult to keep the outrage going.

How many social workers, home carers, team managers and senior managers would admit that they’re shocked that they’re not shocked?

Blair McPherson is an ex-social worker, former director, author and blogger


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5 Responses to Should there be a limit on what frontline social workers are exposed to?

  1. LongtimeSW February 23, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    Simple answer, yes – I shouldn’t, but too often now, end up professionally frustrated and in effect powerless to change things for the better other than superficially – it’s back to ‘sticking plaster’ social work

  2. EDT worker February 23, 2016 at 5:53 pm #

    I don’t think I’ve become desensitised. I am continually outraged and angry at the humiliation and loss of dignity people are forced to accept: at the unsafe hospital discharges, at the dumping at home of frail, immobile elderly people, at the fact that there is no-one to help anymore in the middle of the night because of service cuts.

    However I am exhausted by my anger and outrage. I feel powerless to change anything and, to be honest, by the time I’ve finished a shift, I don’t have much energy left to campaign. It distresses me that – with one or two honourable exceptions – I hear too many other (and particularly younger) SWs accepting the status quo, and expressing attitudes that would not be out of place in the Daily Express.

    Years ago I joined an honourable profession with colleagues who campaigned for social justice. Yet the Chief Social Workers (and the pointless TCSW) rolled over and accepted the agenda of successive, increasingly nasty right-wing governments, rather than leading and challenging the impact of austerity and the “incompetent social workers and dangerous, feckless service users” narrative. And that is what shocks me.

  3. Karen Exelby February 23, 2016 at 11:24 pm #

    Yes our thresholds become higher but we all know when abuse or neglect is unacceptable. Some pragmatism is required or we would be so bogged down we would be ineffective. The wider public and government have to have some responsibility for inhumane policies ; as for burning out successive new recruits surely the key is in good support , supervision and mentoring and manageable caseloads.

  4. Ann February 25, 2016 at 10:51 am #

    Whilst I agree that there is a real risk of individuals becoming desensitised through overexposure to human suffering, and that robust measures should be taken to improve working conditions, the idea of moving through the system, I feel, would provide practitioners with a sound knowledge base from the frontline through to other areas of Social Work, thereby, developing interest and specialisms in particular areas.

    However, there is no commitment from those who hold the power, or indeed, wider society, to truly support the vulnerable.

    Moreover, the constant trimming back of services sends a clear message to all, there is no true value placed on the future of the children and families that we work with.

    Call me a cynic, or maybe I have just become “desensitised”!

  5. Hannah February 25, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

    I mirror thoughts about feeling tired by the fight against systems that allow bad practice to happen because it is quicker, easier and/or less costly. A long term SW with my values, person centred commitment and enthuiasm for empowering people still intact, I agree that the key to longevity in social work without becoming desensitised lies in good support, supervision and leadership. If we aren’t given space and time to discuss our feelings about the things we are faced with on a day to day basis, is our only choice to deal with this detatching ourselves from what we are exposed to? Subsequently if we are not supported to critically analyse our work and develop our practice beyond the task at hand, how will we remain grounded in the fundamentals of our profession. A social worker practicing without feeling or emotion for what they are doing and a forum for reflection is in my mind on dangerous ground. Our feelings are intrinsic to us connecting with people and developing relationships, picking up when things ‘aren’t quite right’ and pushing ourselves to challenge oppression, discrimination and empower people to make tangible changes to their lives when the odds are against them. Supervision in busy social work teams too often becomes about what tasks have been acheived and not about the SW and their professional journey, experiences and emotional wellbeing. How can we continue to be open, creative, empathetic, trustworthy, anti-oppressive professionals if we don’t have an outlet for our feelings? To me, we don’t necessarily need a shelf life on exposure, we need a structure in our organisations that enables us to remain engaged in what we are doing through good care for us as professionals.