You can’t return to social work without first facing why you left

A social worker reflects on what it's like to leave the profession and her experience of taking part in the Returning to Social Work scheme

Photo: adam121/fotolia

By @ReturningSw

Social workers intervene in people’s lives at points of crisis. On a very regular basis, we are dealing with other people’s trauma, distress and heartbreak. Sometimes we become the traumatised ones. This is recognised in many of the professions that deal with the pointy end of society’s ills. So what is unique about social work? Why is it that the profession is constantly suffering a recruitment and retention crisis?

It’s not easy to prepare for the realities of social work. There will be individuals who do the training with all the right intentions, only to find the job is just not for them. I’m not referencing those people here, I’m talking about the thousands of experienced social workers who are currently outside the profession and have thoughts of returning.

I was one of those social workers, until recently. I was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in the national Come Back to Social Work programme, a pilot scheme run by the government, the chief social workers and the Local Government Association. There were nearly 200 applicants and from this 20 individuals were selected.

‘We felt safe’ 

The problem with returning to social work is you can’t do it without first facing the issues of why you left. It’s difficult to deal with those issues when you’re outside the profession. Even for those who left social work amicably, for family reasons perhaps, they can still have a lot of reservations about how social work will fit in with their lives.

When you leave you also often become isolated from people who were once your support network. Talking about the emotional impact of social work with people who have never experienced it is tricky – you get a lot of ‘that’s such a terrible job’. This reinforces the feeling that wanting to go back is foolish and does nothing to help you unpick the very real issues you need to address to be able to move forward.

At our first group coaching session, all the hurt, shame and unexpressed anger and helplessness start to come out. Several people cried. Back among our own kind, we felt safe to be honest for the first time about our social work journeys.

‘Building resilience’

Everyone on the course worked extremely hard. Some came the length of the country and many were balancing current jobs or caring responsibilities. We had to learn about legislative and policy changes, as well as the current implementation of frameworks and theories. We also had to measure ourselves against the Professional Capabilities Framework and the HCPC Standards of Proficiency, to prove we were fit to practice.

More than this though, we needed help with reframing our past, preparing for job interviews and building resilience. This is what the coaching sessions were for. They did feel uncomfortable and prying to begin with, but once you stopped fighting your coach it was surprising the insights they could lead you to. I would recommend coaching to anyone who is considering a life or career change.

A WhatsApp group was formed so we could support one another. It felt good to be part of a team again and to be able to bolster the professional confidence of our peers. We had many discussions about how we could maintain a work-life balance when we returned. We also reflected on shadowing experience and debated the different social work roles. Challenges were deliberated and solutions crowd-sourced. When the portfolios were approved and HCPC registrations confirmed, we celebrated together.

‘Safe spaces’

 So what learning can be gathered from this experience?

Updating knowledge and practice is the easy bit and if a couple of local safeguarding boards and a university teamed up they could do this with little issue. But I caution against solely using this approach. Many social workers looking to re-join the profession have difficulties they need to address and it’s difficult to do this while engaging with training provided by their potential or new employer.

There needs to be some provision made for coaching and supervision to take place in a safe space. Opportunities for peer reflection and support also need to be built into the programme. Without this the people who return to social work may still be carrying the same baggage as when they left. This will impede their resilience.

There needs to be more joined-up thinking when it comes to social work retention. It’s expensive and time-consuming to train social workers from scratch. The average time a social worker spends in post is just seven years. In many teams, more than 60% of the social workers have been practising for less than two years. The profession, the public and vulnerable people need experienced social workers to come back.

I fear that the reason we don’t have a joined-up strategy is because even those in the profession don’t believe that people want to come back. The number of applications to a small-scale pilot in one locality demonstrates that this perception is wrong. Social work is an extraordinary, rewarding and exhilarating career practised by an incredible workforce. I feel privileged to once again stand among them.

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10 Responses to You can’t return to social work without first facing why you left

  1. Blair McPherson May 17, 2017 at 2:18 pm #

    An intriguing title that didn’t live up to its billing.

  2. Nokuthula Mzizi May 17, 2017 at 3:12 pm #

    this information is very useful. May I please have information on how do I go about if I wish to join the national Come Back to Social Work programme
    Thank you

  3. Mr S Thomas May 17, 2017 at 4:05 pm #


  4. Jim Downey May 18, 2017 at 12:13 pm #

    as both a part time practising senior social worker and a full time carer of a young adult who has experienced the service delivered by social workers I can honestly say that they appear to be nothing more than service gatekeepers now and their input is more likely to be in conflict with the service user rather then support of them! I am greatly disappointed by the number of frontline personnel both social workers and nurses in disability services at adult and child level who will not disagree with or challenge their employer or service provider, yet they are more than willing at MDT meetings with service users to be either mute at best or at worst downright argumentative in support of their management. I have told several of them on different occasions that just because services are stretched etc they do not have to agree with their employers, that ethically they are ”allowed” to agree with the service user if they feel the employer/management are not meeting a need.I should know as I always try to put the service user first and will state at MDT meetings when a need should be met or declared unmet. But I despair of the lack of ‘guts’ amongst many individuals in the profession now and who are working against the interest of their clients….many of them should not be in the profession. I wonder why on earth they ever cam into it if they care about the most vulnerable.

  5. George McKay May 18, 2017 at 2:44 pm #

    Helpful advice. Unfortunately the profession is ageist and fails to practice equal opportunity for all. Many experienced social workers would like to return but they are not welcomed by the younger managers who are only interested in promoting their own careers.

  6. John Simpson May 18, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

    Surely the reason I suspect the majority of social workers left was that they were unhappy in the job (or indeed what the job had become)?

    It all very well organisations taking about recruitment and retention, but if the organisational ethos is poor, then why would social workers want to return to the same unhealthy environment they previously left.

    The majority of social worker came into the role to work with people, yet the reality of the role (despite Monroe’s best efforts!) is endless typing and form filling. Just look out over the office floor, social workers staring at their ICT system (CareFirst, LiquidLogic, FrameworkI etc) filling in recordings to ensure compliance with the Regulations. It’s soul destroying!

    Add to that poor management (often), poor supervision (often), lack of career development (unless you jump organisations), limited pay increases (again unless you change organisations) and ever reducing terms and conditions (i.e. sick pay, free parking), then you really don’t have to think very hard as to why the choice doesn’t seem very appealing for potential returnees to the profession?

    This combination of factors obviously doesn’t help the situation, but I do hope this initiative works out as we do need more social workers,we just need to make them happier in their jobs!

  7. Andy Storey May 19, 2017 at 2:22 pm #

    John Simpson has captured the problem spot on.

    The vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society need to have sufficient and timely contact with the skilled professionals who chose to be trained to help and empower them.

    80% of a social worker’s time is spent filling in e- forms and attending meetings to appease statistics. The other 20% is divided between seeing those in need, training and going on leave ( or off sick).

    Management positions are predominantly filled by people with a lack of understanding or value for front line work, with genuine empathy taking second place to their career considerations.

    I have worked across all fields of social work. I firmly believe that the whole structure needs a complete shake up, focusing on the basic reasons why social services came into being. It certainly was not to create jobs for a plethora of bureaucrats, nor waste taxpayers money which would be better spent putting feet on the street – i.e. encouraging social workers get on with what they’re good at.

    • Pearlene Webb May 22, 2017 at 5:30 pm #

      I would also add that one of the reasons social workers leave the profession is due to the bullying and intimidation from managers. I feel very strongly about this issue and feels that more should be done to tackle this. Hardly anything is said about this even though we know it goes on. After 26 years in frontline work I feel stronger than ever that most of the people who pursue management are sociopaths some with psychopathic traits. They make other social workers lives hell and are oblivious to the pain and suffering they cause. Untill we start addressing this issue there will always be problems around recruitment and attention.

  8. Blair McPherson May 23, 2017 at 11:35 am #

    The government wants you back. A lot was invested in your training. You gained valuable experience which we could really use now. We have developed a great program for supporting returnees like yourself. We understand why you left, there were a lot of unpopular changes, we were experimenting with changing the skill mix, long hours and a cap on pay rises didn’t help. The emphases on efficiency was well intended but may have given the wrong impression.
    The management philosophy was more appropriate to the private sector, too many targets, too much naming and shaming not enough valuing and supporting. Zero contracts, the over reliance on agency staff and the aggressive approach to absence management were a failed experiment.
    Seeing people as ,”customers” seemed like a good idea but choice and value for money can have unintended consequences.
    There was a lot of uncertainty what with proposals on mergers, centralising services and outsourcing.
    We lost a lot of good people.
    So what would it take for you to come back?

    • Pearlene Webb May 23, 2017 at 5:41 pm #

      Anyone entering the caring professions should undergo psychological assessment to determined that they are up to the job in terms of their emotional intelligence and ethics. It’s time to weed out the chaff from the wheat too many are losing their lives and are having their lives ruined as a result.