Skim-read Bianka Lang’s nomination for best children’s team leader – a title she won along with the overall title at the 2016’s Social Worker of the Year awards – and you get the sense of a manager who prefers to lead by example without undue fuss.
It’s an impression borne out by Lang’s manner over the phone from her Chelmsford office: warm, informative yet measured. Asked which elements of her job, managing one of Essex County Council’s assessment and intervention (A&I) teams, get on her nerves, she will at first only admit that “our IT systems frustrate me”.
A tactful response maybe, but her actions – she has spent almost 13 years in the same workplace – back up her assertion that she’s happy in her work. But it was her focus on promoting others’ wellbeing as a first-line manager that impressed the Social Worker of the Year judges.
“I like to go to a workplace where I’m happy, rather than stressed out because of issues in the team,” says Lang. “That’s difficult at times, of course, because we see lots of sad things. Being a social worker is very demanding. It’s important to create a space where people can discuss their cases, whether that’s face to face or over the phone.”
Essex’s most recent Ofsted, which saw it rated good in 2014, described a “rapid response to children identified as being at risk of harm [that] ensures they are effectively protected”.
With the council’s locality based A&I teams receiving thousands of referrals each year, Lang says staying decisive and fitting in time to support colleagues are essential for keeping on top of the pressure. “She has created a very secure, safe feeling team around her,” said a colleague in her nomination for the awards.
“We have a big drive [in Essex] for systemic practice,” says Lang. “With reflective supervision, if there’s a case that’s a bit chaotic in your head, it gives you time and space to bring calm to the scenario – it’s important to foster that approach.”
A move towards more reflective practice is, she says, one of the main positive changes she’s witnessed in her time as a social worker. “We work a lot more holistically; work alongside families and bring about change with them,” she says.
“Assessments are more analytical these days – we look at the whole picture, or try to, and put in interventions so families don’t need our input in the long run. We include fathers much more, and do a lot of direct work with children that might have been done in the past by family support workers. I’m always on the lookout for new tools to help children and families.”
Pursuing knowledge and promoting learning have long been passions for Lang, who grew up in Huppichteroth, a small village in western Germany. The beginnings of her association with social work date from the early 1990s, when she spent a year volunteering in Birmingham supporting a man with a spinal injury.
She subsequently returned to Germany to study pedagogy in Cologne – something that continues to inform her practice – before completing a BA in specialist social work back in the UK.
“I try to encourage my team members to further their knowledge by sending them on different courses so they can share learned expertise with others, and also to build specialisms that can benefit the team,” Lang says.
One example of this is having a lead practitioner for housing and benefits within her unit. She has also linked her workers with the council’s domestic abuse teams in order to build their knowledge of working with families where abuse is prevalent.
“My colleagues have been with me quite a long time and I know them well – I’m always happy to look for dialogue with other managers and create opportunities for people to shadow, or do some work with them so they can learn.”
Lang describes her team, which has no agency workers, as “quite stable”. She mentions with satisfaction one of her colleagues, who was seconded to another team in order to gain experience at senior practitioner level.
“Then she wanted to come back, returning as a social worker – but had extra expertise, and when a senior practitioner post came free she applied, did a great interview and was successful,” she says.
But, when pushed on what she’s found frustrating in her career, she admits that her own step up to management in 2013 wasn’t the easiest of transitions.
“All of a sudden, I had to manage the resources during a time where there were significant changes and budget pressures,” she recalls. “My focus was to create an environment that encouraged team members to become permanent and to stay during a time where agency work was a lot more lucrative.
“That challenge remains – maintaining a team of permanent social workers requires creativity with a dose of reality,” Lang adds. “This experience has taught me that social care is ever-evolving and you need to be prepared to either adjust or grow along with it.”
Lang says she hopes that “sharing my journey” can be useful to the next generation of social work managers, such as a colleague she’s mentoring at present.
The most recent phase of that journey has obviously had its highlights. Lang says she was “humbled and overwhelmed” when she discovered her workmates had nominated her for children’s team leader of the year, and saw what they had written about her.
But she acknowledges that “like everyone” she’s eyeing the future, in which budget pressures are again looming large, with trepidation as to whether services to children and families can be maintained.
Despite the bleak financial outlook for councils, Lang is positive about the direction social work is heading in. She has “no plans”, she says with a chuckle, to make any sudden career moves in the near future.
“The good thing is that we work systemically and change social work into something where we can assist families into a better place without feeling that they are being oppressed by social workers,” she concludes.
“Working with a strength-based approach and in a solutions-focused way helps change the view of social work [for the better] and I believe Essex is doing that really well.”