No headaches, no guilt: why I left social work for support work

The pay may be much worse, but support work offers a freedom and quality of life often denied to social workers, writes Matt Bee

Photo: Robert Kneschke/Fotolia

By Matt Bee

Here’s my dilemma. I’m a social worker of ten years standing and I’m looking to move on. But not up to management. So where? Recently, Sophie Ayers wrote a fantastic piece about becoming an independent social worker. But what if you want to move away from the profession entirely?

That’s me, right now. And it’s a question that’s been vexing me for some time. While all my colleagues have steadily progressed, training up as approved mental health professionals (AMHPs) and best interests assessors (BIAs), taking on senior roles and being lured into the gravitational pull of a management position, I’ve not once felt a similar draw. Instead, I’ve felt my appetite for frontline practice wane, until one day it finally happened. No longer did I want to be a social worker.

But I still wanted to work with clients – whether they had learning disabilities, mental health problems, drug addictions or had reached the far end of their lives and were battling dementia and brittle bones.

And that’s where the idea of becoming a support worker came from.

The perfect solution

I mean, why not? When you think of what social workers complain about – too much paperwork and not enough time with clients – support work is the perfect solution. And scanning down the job ads at unqualified roles there are countless vacancies for housing officers, drug recovery workers, advocates, family liaison workers, wardens in supported accommodation, and even personal assistants through personal budgets.

Sure, the pay can be lousy, but looking down the pay scale instead of just up and across, you find a whole world of opportunities opening up – opportunities that, as an experienced social worker, you are abundantly qualified to pursue.

Dipping my toe in the water, I’ve taken up just such a role recently, and let me tell you, after years of weighty, serious social work, it’s a breath of fresh air. You still work with the same clients but there’s less pressure, you leave the office on time and you can actually relax and enjoy the role.

I don’t have a headache, don’t feel the need for a drink, and I don’t feel guilty about what I’ve failed to accomplish today.

Does it feel like a step in the wrong direction? Not really. I’m writing this at 5.49pm on a week night with the whole evening stretching out ahead. I don’t have a headache, don’t feel the need for a drink, and I don’t feel guilty about what I’ve failed to accomplish today.

That’s what support work feels like after social work. It’s rather nice, actually.

Caveat

But there is a caveat to all of this. On the flipside of having less to worry about, I also have less clout. My signature no longer commissions care services or discharges anyone from hospital. I’ve less status, for sure.

And I’ve significantly less money. While social work salaries hover around the £30k mark, you can halve that for many unqualified positions, which does leave a sizeable dent in the household income. But weekend and evening shifts can help boost that up again, plus I can always earn a bob or two writing. You might have a similar hobby you could turn into a money-spinner once you aren’t flogged to death by the day job.

Admittedly, all this is a little unorthodox. Whilst many social workers progress to become Ofsted or Care Quality Commission inspectors, pursue court work or lecture at universities, not many, I imagine, pull on a pair of jeans and continue working so closely with clients.

Casual dress code

But for me, I love it. I love the casual dress code, the hours and the freedom. And I love how refreshingly straightforward it is to offer someone a cup of tea and a listening ear instead of a raft of complex assessment forms and an allocated slot at a funding panel. Of course, you can sit and chat as a social worker, too, but it’s hard to escape the ticking clock and the incessant buzzing of a mobile phone. Always there’s that guilty feeling that time spent with a client will have to be made up later in the office.

Leaving that frantic pace behind has been no hardship. In fact, the transition from frontline social work practice has been surprisingly easy – although it does throw into light questions about your role, purpose, and even your identity. A career – especially one that can envelop you so completely – can really shape a person. Take it away and what have you got?

Well, in this case, you’ve got someone who is financially poorer but, ultimately, happier. On reflection, deciding to leave the profession was actually the easy part. It was the challenge of knowing what to do next that I struggled with. Yearning for more quality time with clients and less pressure, my options at first seemed extremely limited. But in support work I think I’ve found an answer. A sizeable drop in salary has been a small price to pay for a better quality of life, less stress and more pleasure in the work day.

14 Responses to No headaches, no guilt: why I left social work for support work

  1. very mature student June 13, 2017 at 11:22 am #

    What a breath of fresh air Matt!

    I’m a very mature student social worker just about to qualify, and after many many years supporting people (qualified nurse, training advisor) decided to take the plunge and become a s worker. Spent last few years at University to get my degree, doing all the ‘academic and theory’ stuff (essential now to become a s worker), and 200 days ‘on the job’ placement working full time for free gaining ‘experience’ in my opinion much of which I already had.

    I am now about to leave University with a disillusioned outlook about the profession.

    I have worked extremely hard these last few years and made many sacrifices, not least to my family, (I have a family and an elderly parent to care for), however Matt Bee describes me and my experiences to a tee.

    I have loved every minute working directly with my clients and their families from all walks of life, with many different needs, but the amount of managerialism and bureaucracy s workers have to now deal with, spending days sat in front of computers loading assessments most senior managers don’t read, is absolute madness, and much to the detriment of clients as home visits are mostly rushed to get back to office to load on system (more time spent doing this than talking/listening to clients). Most nights I, like Matt ended up with a banging headache and worried about the backlog of electronic paperwork I hadn’t finished, despite often working late.

    This is not what I came into s work for and I will be seriously reevaluating where I go from here.

    Clients and the tax paying public are being short changed from the profession.

    Policy makers and LA’s should hang their heads in shame!

    …..and incidentally, I also am leaving with a massive student debt!

    • very mature student June 13, 2017 at 12:54 pm #

      PS – see a Social Work Tutors letter to Government about the day to day pressure and the amount of bureaucracy

      http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2016/01/16/dear-education-secretary-social-workers-open-letter-state-profession/

      • BarneyRubble June 13, 2017 at 7:32 pm #

        Social Work Tutor isn’t a social work tutor

        • Social Work Tutor
          Social Work Tutor June 14, 2017 at 7:34 am #

          Well I kind of am in that I tutor Social Work students with additional needs. That’s where the name comes from! There’s an FAQ section on my website that explains.

          Yabba dabba doo!

        • very mature student June 14, 2017 at 8:59 am #

          ….she says she’s a child protection social worker, however maybe she is a practice educator too which means she’s a tutor in practice 🙂

          • HelenSparkles June 27, 2017 at 10:18 pm #

            She is a he and SWT is not a practice educator.

  2. Previous support worker June 13, 2017 at 6:14 pm #

    Matt that works if the support worker position you have allows you the time to care for your clients. I worked in such a position a while back and the organization who provided the support service I worked for had been chosen by the local council as it was the lowest bidder. I found, when I joined and learned this, that there was a reason the bid had been so low … much more was expected to be done with far less resources. Some staff who had been there a while and had been transferred over as employees of the “new” organization described to me how resources, hours and staffing numbers had changed for the worst each time an organization took over the service. It was very stressful and as I worked a constantly changing rotating shift schedule, I couldn’t pick up another job due to my irregular hours. Trying to survive on 18K by oneself is extremely difficult in the S.E. – especially when renting. It was impossible. I left.

  3. Social Work Tutor
    Social Work Tutor June 13, 2017 at 9:57 pm #

    How terribly sad it is to read this so shortly after Sophie’s piece the other week.

    Matt and Sophie are (or do I now have to sadly say ‘were’), in my opinion, the two best practising writers about Social Work in the world. They may come from different fields, but they share the same passion for the profession, thirst for social justice and ability to write with humour and humility.

    That they were both brave enough to raise important issues about the reality of practice (not the sanitised version of events we often see) under their own names speaks volumes for the strength of their characters.

    To have them both leave frontline work at the same time is a damning indictinent of the state of our profession…. those that care the most end up having to walk away to save themselves.

    I can only hope that they find the happiness they both deserve and that new writers come forward to fill the very large boots they have left behind.

  4. Julie June 13, 2017 at 10:06 pm #

    As a QUALIFIED support worker (yes, we have our own qualifications) I find this article highly insulting. I chose not to be a social worker and am getting a bit bored of being referred to as an unqualified social worker – this is not the case. I chose a different role and qualified in this field and I’m very good at it.
    I’m delighted that you do not have headaches and have found a job that lends itself to you being able to leave the office at a resonable
    Hour. Many of us mere support workers do not have that luxury and spend a great deal
    Of time doing most of the actual social work the social worker has no time to do! In addition we are the ones who tend to build the meaningful relationships with clients which in turn provides the opportunity for programmatic work to be undertaken again, usually by us. We worry about clients just as much as social workers (if not more as we actually know the client) and we definitely do come home late with reports outstanding and Are expected to work from home with a headache you claim doesn’t exist in this role!
    I am well paid in my role – a marginal difference between my pay and a social workers.
    I know I am in a lucky situation as I understand that in other sectors there is a significant gap in pay but who cares – nobody gets into social work to be rich. I’m sure your post want meant to be insulting but please take a moment to think about the lowly, ‘unqualified worker’ before your next post!

    • very mature student June 14, 2017 at 10:13 am #

      Julie

      I understand what you’re saying and it’s my guess that you are a qualified support worker within a LA team, which in my experience of working in an adults social care team means that your role is as much a demanding and challenging role as the social workers.

      Everyone has too many cases, not enough time, lack of resources and weak supervision. The pressure is immense on all staff members.

      However it’s possible that Matt now has a role in the voluntary sector, or privately, and although he’s supporting clients to meet their needs, it’s probably a completely different role to yours – cases/visits/completing assessments/desk based with huge amounts electronic paperwork??

      …but ‘Respect’ to all support workers – qualified or unqualified – they should be recognised and valued more, like all social care staff.

    • The Phantom June 16, 2017 at 9:23 am #

      With respect Julie….and if I can wobble that chip on your shoulder, what the writer is saying is that the advantages of support work totally outweighs the stress and financial remuneration of ‘front line social work’… I agree and who wouldn’t!

      His attraction to the role is because of the opportunity to build those meaningful relationships you talk about & have time with clients to achieve something (other than justifying resources). That is evident in that article. Your bullish response defends the support worker profession and indeed promotes the role – as he does, however your writing is a tad combative, probably based on the fact that you have a marginal pay difference between your pay & ‘qualified social workers’.

      ‘I’m delighted for you’.

      Ps. Gizza job; as my pay is10k less than you (assuming you base your assumption on the 30k average pay for qualified social work.

  5. Sue June 14, 2017 at 7:06 pm #

    Hi Matt this has come at the very point for me in my career, having worked as a Social Worker for the past 14 years in a range of teams which although has offer a lot of experience, I’m feeling the strain on front line working not only with the cuts, lack of resources many changes in the best way to work with the most vulnerable but the whole stress of it all. I became a BIA in 2014 and while being on a extended secondment working with a lot of LD clients my passion has started to become alive and my previous passion before becoming a SW and the joy support working thank you for giving pause for thought .

  6. lucy June 14, 2017 at 9:29 pm #

    Hi Matt,

    Thank you for writing this wonderful and inspiring article, as I found it honest and encouraging, and I am also right where you were, before you made the switch to support worker.

    I also had to ‘get honest with myself’ and I don’t want to be a Social Worker anymore either, and I haven’t enjoyed it for a while, however the financial commitments stopped me, however I realise there will never be a right time to ‘take the plunge’, and it’s time for a change. It’s been a long time coming; as by the end of this year, I will have been a frontline Child Protection Worker for 20 years, having practised in both Australia and the UK. I started when I was 25, & I now almost 45, and it’s time to leave.

    The job became way too taxing and stressful, with too much admin, report writing, competing demands and long hours, along with too little client contact and managerial support. I have also noticed this job is also becoming increasingly dangerous and volatile, & there is too little support and safety for Social Workers. I have also become increasingly dissatisfied with the amount of free work Social Workers have to do in the evenings/ weekends to keep up with an unreasonable and exploitative workload. The worry is there is little work/life balance, and the impact upon one’s mental health, personal & social relationships are huge, and we are at risk of becoming isolated & lonely to the long hours and in-natural nature of the job.

    Me- I am also keeping my options open; maybe a personal carer, real estate agent, or beauty therapist – the world’s my oyster, one things for sure, I won’t miss Social Work, as it’s become something it was never meant to be!!!!

  7. jayne June 16, 2017 at 4:13 pm #

    I have been a social worker for 30 years. I am so sad that we see to many leaving the best profession ever . I read community care and have been interested in the’ back to basics’. The best team i everworked (16 years) in had weekly group meeting with a break for nice cakes and tea.’A waste of time’ the new manager said ‘only meet once a fortnight’ no food or drink down to business..Result Social workers not able to have the group supervison/support of each other , not having a team embedding good practice not discussing cases in fact to use jargon ;silo’ working.I was once told a team need ‘the experienced’ ‘the coming on nicely’ and the newly quailified to keep it all flowing and practice up to date with everyone feeling valued. We are losing the experienced, so where do nqs learn good practice and ways to cope ?The meeting was 1 and half hours a week.We had time to get things right first time. It saved time helps stress and helped us work as a team. I left 2 years ago due to personal family reasons and now am ready to rejoin.I am wondering if i should.I am so sorry we are coming to this.There will always be familys and children who need us and the multidiscipined teams. Lets not argue if we have difficulties lets talk and heal. We are all part of the circle of care.We are strong together.