By Elizabeth Rylan*
I have been a social worker for almost six years and I would say that, overall, I am proud of what I do. I stumbled into studying social work almost by accident, but since being part of the profession, it has been a conscious choice to stay. Yes, I have bad days (and weeks!) and there are times when it seems relentless and I question whether all the stress is ‘worth it’. But then something will happen, a shift in a longstanding situation or a ‘thank you’ from an unexpected source and my commitment is reaffirmed.
Easier to moan
Reading other people’s contributions to Community Care’s Stand Up for Social Work campaign has made me reflect on whether I can honestly say that I do this myself. By nature I am not someone who speaks a lot about their own life, and while family and friends may hear snippets about my work, the very nature of the job prevents me from sharing too many details as I am conscious of maintaining confidentiality.
It can be much easier to moan about general matters such as budget cuts and team restructures, than it is to explain the relative success of ending your involvement with a family knowing that they are slightly more intact than when you met them, or that you have helped to stop someone being financially abused.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who when asked what I do for a job, has given the honest but intentionally vague reply that ‘I work for the council’.
I am not ashamed to be a social worker, rather I am proud of the commitment by myself and colleagues and the outcomes we achieve every day for so many people. However, experience has taught me that it is a job title that provokes a range of responses. Over the years I have had, “Oh”, followed by tumbleweed-style silence; nondescript hostility; or people bearing their soul and disclosing personal and family information with the expectation that I will be able to ‘fix’ whatever difficulty they are encountering. As a result I have become wary and self-protecting.
I work hard and in my leisure time I am focused on looking after myself and recharging ready for the week ahead. So I don’t particularly want to get into a prolonged discussion with the taxi driver/friend of a friend bumped into at the gym/supermarket checkout assistant which can all too easily flip my mind back onto brooding about whatever casework issue is currently causing me considerable concern.
If I am at the hairdressers, I want to enjoy a rare hour of pampering and the complimentary head massage without talking about the 9-5. But then afterwards I tend to feel guilty.
By not talking about what I do, and indeed hiding it at times, do I project that I am ashamed to be a social worker? Or maybe I just come across as a bit rude and non-communicative!
If my concern is negative public perception and a lack of knowledge about what it is that social workers actually do, then am I passively contributing to the cycle continuing?
Perhaps there is a middle ground, a way that I can convey my job role in a non-apologetic fashion while not opening myself up to unprovoked criticism or a barrage of queries or complaints at the same time. I can deftly manage difficult conversations at work and successfully employ a range of communication techniques, but for some reason I find it so much harder when doing things for myself.
So I can state with confidence and commitment that I am a social worker; that it is a profession that brings its challenges and its rewards; that the work is varied, complex and demanding but that I wouldn’t want it any other way. And I can maintain eye contact, smile and steadily move the discussion on if I am feeling under scrutiny.
So perhaps this is what I will do as my contribution to the campaign. It may sound small, but for me it is big. I can start standing up for social work by at least being consistently counted among the profession’s number. No megaphone, no huge gestures, but rather quietly and calmly in my own way making a change and living the values I uphold of integrity and honesty. If I can instil a positive impression in someone who previously held a less favourable view of social workers, then surely that will count as a success. Here goes!
*Elizabeth Rylan is a pseudonym for an adults’ social worker based in a local authority in the south of England