Why I’m leaving frontline social work – and it isn’t burn out

A social worker explains why they are leaving the frontline to try and better influence systemic change in local authorities to improve social work practice

Photo: Leremy/Fotolia

by Andrew Matthews

I have been working as a social worker for three years and have loved working directly with children and families. From working closely with colleagues I have seen there are shared motivations for becoming a social worker as well as niche personal drivers.

For example, there are colleagues who thrive on working directly with children, and those who are passionate about advocacy and supporting those who find themselves in the most vulnerable positions in society.

I myself have developed a strong interest in how social work is facilitated in local authorities, more specifically how one’s organisation allows social work to thrive and flourish.

I think we all have a good understanding of the difficulties and barriers that are found in local authority social work. Austerity and cuts are of huge significance. Some argue without this being tackled social work will be unable to fully thrive. I tend to agree in part with this view; my reluctance to fully agree is due to the examples of excellent leadership driving local authority social work forward.

I have therefore been keen as a social worker to use my role to not only support children and families, but to try to influence and contribute to organisational change where I have practiced.

I have practiced in two local authorities, I understand some might say that this does not allow for a broad understanding of the system, which I can appreciate, but on the other hand I do feel my experience has provided me with an understanding of what needs to change. I have been keen to think about how practitioners can contribute to organisational change and have worked to act on this.

So then why leave? I have made the difficult decision to move into something different because of three main reasons.

Experience

Firstly, I have become more aware about my own thoughts and feelings about what I hold important in a job and career. It has become clear to me that it is important to feel valued in your position and for your own values to match those of the organisation you work for. I found that my values relate to ideas of innovation, child-focused practice, creativity and the importance of a social worker’s judgement.

I am sure the senior leaders of my organisation may have shared similar ideals but this did not translate to my experience. I think this directly relates to my second and third points, the quality of practice supervisors and the retention of a skilled senior leadership embedding and following through on a vision for good practice

I have had a number of managers and it is my view that direct line managers are critical to practitioner retention, morale and for good practice to flourish. A quality manager will enable excellent practice and personal growth and development even when the context of the organisation may be challenging.

This is not to say context is not of significance but a skilled leader can overcome challenges. This view is directly rooted in my own experiences of working in an environment judged to be ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted.

Challenge bureaucracy

More recently, I have become more committed to innovation and change, to challenge bureaucracy and think differently about ‘how’ social work is practiced. I personally have been met with negativity; a fear of change which I feel has been rooted in an attitude of going back to type when things become more difficult i.e. increased reliance on process-led practice when workload and pressure increases.

This has been influenced by a revolving door of senior leaders who invent new processes and guidance, which postulates more defensive, prescriptive practice.

The pattern that develops is relatively simple: new senior leaders observe chaos and difficulty, the solution to chaos is to bring order through embedding new processes to get things on track. I understand this is often necessary but the important point is that this becomes the sole change; when stability is attained the next step is not taken to think about ‘how’ social work is being practiced within the organisation.

Additionally, the development of new forms, processes, procedures can then be followed by a critical point, which leads to senior leaders moving on from the organisation and then begins the introduction of new systems and models once again.

Therefore, there may be a constant churn of the same pattern; different individuals putting a different spin on change to firefight. I appreciate the context of high levels of need and significant cuts makes process-led social work more appealing. But, in increasingly difficult situations for councils, strong creative leadership is more sorely needed.

Frustrated with barriers

I have found that in practice I have had two strong motivators, one to do my best for children and families and a second to create and encourage organisational change. As a practitioner I have become frustrated with the barriers in working towards the latter.

I have been incredibly fortunate and privileged to recently work with newly qualified social workers and student social workers in shaping their practice. I enjoy this area of practice but find myself pulled in a new direction to try and change the system in a different way to enable better social work practice.

So with an opportunity to work on the development and management of projects/innovations associated with social care more broadly I have welcomed a change. What has been bizarre has been colleagues asking me how I feel about moving on from social work where I feel they have half expectedly me to reply with “phew, I am happy to be leaving”.

It is the contrary, I don’t feel burnt out and I have been extremely fortunate with my practice experience. The hardest thing for me with leaving practice is not working directly with families I have been working alongside for over a year. I am confident I will return to practice one day but a new opportunity has come at the right time where I can hopefully affect change in a different way.

Disregarded

I hope in writing this article, I have not come across as self indulgent, my purpose has been to demonstrate and share that practitioners are keen for system change. I have experienced barriers and sometimes a poor attitude to wanting things to change; I have hypothesised that as I am not in a managerial position my view as a practitioner and my capacity to influence has been somewhat disregarded.

I do think changes can be made at this level of the system but to do this alone is difficult. The values of the organisation need to be clear and concrete, values and ideals which are led by supportive, innovative and creative leadership at middle management and at a senior level. I sometimes feel that the higher context of defensive decision making and blame can be internalised within local authorities which then trickles down into frontline practice. The culture has to be right for practice to flourish.

Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym.

25 Responses to Why I’m leaving frontline social work – and it isn’t burn out

  1. peter durrant August 29, 2018 at 12:17 pm #

    Andrew’s not too far away, is my comment as an eighty-year-old long retired community development/social worker in staid old Cambridge and it would be great to have on-line dialogues around the themes he, and others, have identified.

    • Sylvia August 29, 2018 at 6:35 pm #

      Loved this piece – great to hear thoughts not only about practice but also organisational culture and how this impacts. Great idea to hold both aspects In mind, this is what I try to teach my students.

  2. Smacker August 29, 2018 at 4:14 pm #

    Gee Andrew if you’re going to leave social work you’re going to have to learn not to write like one. Good luck though.

    • Karen September 1, 2018 at 11:41 am #

      Smacker. What’s wrong with writing like a social worker?

  3. Andrew August 29, 2018 at 4:28 pm #

    Yes. Writing as a senior front line social worker – Bureaucratic, defensive and prescriptive practices, generating ever increasing processes, combined with an often ‘Peter principal’ management seriously detracts from the quality and quantity of social work.

  4. Jimi Ogundere August 29, 2018 at 4:43 pm #

    Totally agreed and do relate to all the points stated. Same reason I left three years ago. Is like fighting a non ending battles……

  5. Mrs Janet Wyer August 29, 2018 at 5:03 pm #

    I feel so sorry for this social worker and can understand what she means I was a nursing assistant / carer and working in Hospitals and in the community for 35 years , things are bought to the attention of the line managers only to be brushed under the carpet because of lack of resources and money . Yes you say just a carer / nursing assistant but we have loads of training . I loved my job but retired 4 years ago , I see the NHS as it was in the 80s and what it has become and the lack of care in the community where will it all end !

  6. Chris Sterry August 29, 2018 at 5:03 pm #

    I come to this from the other end, as a family carer of my daughter who has been assessed to have many care needs and with the advancing years and medical condituons of myself and my wife weare now unable to provide the standard of care that is required for our daughter and therefore solely rely on the sysyems administered by Adult Social Care and Continuing Health Care.

    When taking into account of the Care Act 2014 for those who are in need of care and their family carers I am finding the system is geared around costs rather than need.

    In many respects this has been so way before the austerity measures, which have indeed made the processes so much worse, but they were not all that good to start with.

    Which should it be fitting the systems to those in need or those in need fitting the system, as the system should flexible enough to meet all the required needs and not just a part of them.

    The Social workers should be working with those in need of care and their carers, rather than in many circumstances, against them.

    Social Workers should be allowed to do the job for which they were trained for.

    Yes, there is insufficient money and there always has been, but the required amount of money should be found, as it should for health to enable all these required needs to be met.

    In other areas this money is found, take the nuclear deterrent and many other areas, so should not the vulnerable of the UK be a first priority.

    This would lead to an increase in the moral of the families and also all the frontline workers, instead of the current demoralised state many are now in.

  7. Unknown NQSW August 29, 2018 at 7:01 pm #

    As a newly qualified social worker, I could not agree more with some of the points made. A manager who is able to elicit a positive change and promote personal growth is essential in this line of work. If they are defeated or unable to show this attitude or. willingness towards this then this has a knock on effect for the rest of the team. I am 6 months in to post as a newly qualified social worker and I am struggling with what resources are available to meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and parents. There is a lack of support and an expectation that NQSW’s are able to get on with heavy case loads and in my experience, some of these cases require a much more experienced practitioner, particularly where there are court proceedings. I feel that sometimes the true value of social work and promoting children and families right to social justice is lost due to the high demands of paper work and recording. I have five years experience as working as a support worker, and this, in addition to university has not equipped me with a good understanding and reality in to the demands of social work. It is a true shame that social workers are unable to do the job that they signed up for, however in a system that does fear change, it feels like you are forever chasing your tail and never getting anywhere. If it wasn’t for the NQSW’s within my team and other more senior social workers it’s likely that I would have thrown in the towel. This is quite sad considering that I am so early in to starting my career, however, this view is mirrored by many of my fellow colleagues starting off in social work. There does need to be a change and social workers need to campaign together and fight collectively. There is too much focus on targets and paperwork. This is not what I signed up for!!!

  8. Hank August 29, 2018 at 7:34 pm #

    Hi Andrew, interesting but I rarely see jobs advertised which could influence change unless you are employed as an operational manager for a local authority.

    What is your new job title and what organisation do you work for? Local authority? Government?

  9. Tuckyourshirtin August 29, 2018 at 8:42 pm #

    I’m wandering what training route Andrew completed? I predict Frontline…?

  10. Josh F August 29, 2018 at 9:55 pm #

    This is incredibly self indulgent. I know who wrote this, and he comes across as smug and condescending in person. With only 3 yrs experience, (following 1yr training with a fast track course) no experience at real managerial or strategic level, and with the ‘Fast-track’ confidence that is not reflected in competence. He continually positions himself as an expert without the actual background to warrant this. This reads like a person who has a very high opinion of themselves and is frustrated that others don’t give them the captive audience and credit they feel they deserve. Some reflection and humility sorely needed please.

    • Andrew Matthews September 3, 2018 at 9:25 am #

      Hi Josh, in conversation with comm care I was told it maybe interesting to share my experiences of why I was leaving. I don’t see why 3 years does not allow me to have an opinion; I am not an expert and don’t pretend to be. The fact is I don’t think you have to work 10 plus years in an environment to have an understanding of how the system operates. The piece aimed to be reflective of why I took a particular decision, by its very nature (a personal piece) it is going to have a degree of talking about myself. I completely appreciate the fine line with self indulgence and as articulated in the article I was worried about it being that way. On a side note I’d be really interested to know how we know each other or where we met, perhaps you could contact me on Twitter. Don’t mind someone having a negative opinion of me! Just curious to know if we have indeed met (A pseudonym has been used to respect my previous employer and their anonymity)

  11. Tracy wickett August 29, 2018 at 9:59 pm #

    I agree with many of the points in this article. I have worked in authority’s up and down the country. The only place I witnessed a different way of thinking was working for a trust in South Yorkshire. Direct work and the child’s voice was always to the forefront of decision making and I would get asked “what does the child think/ want” constantly and the process and bureaucracy although still enforced evidently came second. It’s my view that the trust status enabled management more freedom and autonomy from local government ‘meddling’ in the service and the manner in which it was delivered. Management listened to field social workers. As a result I am a big fan of trusts as a way forward.

  12. sw111 August 29, 2018 at 10:48 pm #

    Andrew is right about the blame culture – that has pervaded the process and thinking of the organisation. This has trickled down and unfortunately, one at front line has to bear brunt. It is true that supportive management (not defensive) can have such positive impact on the team resulting in professional growth and development of the workers. I had the privilege of working under such a leadership and those experiences and learning can be only cherished now.
    Social workers strive to effect changes to promote children’s welfare; they feel frustrated when the process led practice and poor leadership stifles their intent.

  13. SW578 August 30, 2018 at 9:21 am #

    Too true.

    The most committed social workers ( to people and to structural change ) get put in a corner and told they have extreme views. To the point where they are asked to change their personal critical reflections on their ASYE portfolios.

    Wanting structural change and working for a local authority is very difficult.

    Saying ‘no’ to families to often is also difficult.

    What happens when social workers are transparent about the bigger issues affecting every day decisions? e.g. austerity and going to panel? There is a money care balance or continuum that is leaning towards money. Equality is so far off in terms of resources, opportunity, attitudes…as in all public services, good and great workers are leaving. I certainly have previous experience in charity social work where I felt appreciated by children everyday, paper work was far less and all the other professionals didn’t hate us!

  14. Christie August 30, 2018 at 11:46 am #

    I think the article is an interesting academic piece but in terms of real change ‘on the ground’ it says very little

  15. LONG IN THE TOOTH August 30, 2018 at 12:33 pm #

    Great article, Andrew. Been a SW for a long time now. Not initially in this country. My training included loads of therapy, (play; bereavement; pre and post divorce counselling) and I miss that enormously. Love the job – hate the politics! What I liked about your article is that you have a very balanced perspective. It is sad that the ‘start again syndrome’ we all learn to be so aware of, is happening in the very place in which we practice.

    Good luck!

  16. Jo-Anne August 30, 2018 at 7:00 pm #

    Several of the notions put forward in this article have resonated with me. I am now 4 years qualified and, although working in an independent fostering agency, have experienced many similarities. Organisational structure changes and ‘politics’ have played a huge part in altering the processes and paperwork across the agency, as well as impacting negatively on frontline SSWs who feel undervalued and demoralised, with no focus professional development. I have seen many colleagues leave, some through choice and others who have been pushed because their views do not match those in higher management. Changes in management and the emphasis on having an ‘Ofsted/admin’ focus, as opposed to an emphasis on true social work values, has resulted in a general demoralisation in staff and poorer outcomes not just across SSWs, but also on foster carers too.

    Those affected the most by all of this are the children and young people we are trying to protect. When foster carers and SSWs are constantly bombarded with bureaucracy, the priority of building relationships and reflecting on practice, sadly falls far behind.

  17. Lmao2018 August 30, 2018 at 11:18 pm #

    Where you leaving too?

  18. HelenSparkles September 1, 2018 at 7:47 am #

    There’s a little bit of a gap in this argument for me, whilst central government is mentioned in passing, local is not. LAs are political organisations. In my LA for example, in a consultation about cuts, nobody wanted to spend £ on services for vulnerable children or adults. Councillors are politicians & cabinet have just voted to close 19 of our children’s centres. The external pressure impact upon internal mechanisms, leadership & systems.

    I also think it is probably better to spend more time in the field before you start being responsible for any systemic changes, 3 years is 5 minutes in SW.

  19. George Anderson September 1, 2018 at 7:36 pm #

    I am 80 years old and have been a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in New York, Boston and Los Angeles since 1991. I decided to pursue Post Graduate Training in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy before taking my first job. This training was at Harvard University School of Medicine. My second job was as a Lecturer at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute where I worked for five years. The balance of my long career has been in full time private practice.
    My Social Work training prepared me to excel at a wide range of competences. Currently, my firm, Anderson & Anderson, APC is the largest provider of Emotional Intelligence Coaching in the U.S. for “disruptive physicians” and physician leadership. We are also the leading provider of Anger Management Facilitator Certification as well as Batterer’s Intervention.
    I am not even close to burnout and look forward to each day because I have multiply income streams and maintain control over what I actually do.

  20. Berny September 2, 2018 at 10:20 am #

    Yes I agree with some if not all of the points made in this piece . We could all say ” well they cannot be that committed to social work “as in the why I trained to be a SW in the first place , but the reality of all the change over the last decade is fairly summed up in how it has affected Mathew.

    The piece is reassuring to me personally as I have been told to shut up and just do as I am told in polite office and supervision discussions.

    I do not think I am that radical to be honest but critical , reflective and always putting the people I work with first yes , always looking to improve-yes and yes .

    It seems to me that with all the cuts and reduction in staff under the what does it really matter anymore banner that the best and most experienced have left the fight exhausted and we have been left with Peter syndrome managers .

    I dont hear anyone talking about refection , being critical or many people really being political and many of us are wearing metaphorical tin hats week in week out .

    Having just left such a job with managers who frankly are the bottom of the barrel and indeed bottom feeders I have manged to get into a team where the values are very different .

    I hope there are more teams like this out there because if we are going to keep social work alive and kicking we will need people in the future with the right values and practice to support and help colleagues in teams .

    I almost left myself , but no I will not , sleeves up phone on —bring it on Peters good always wins out .

  21. Bill Sparks September 2, 2018 at 5:16 pm #

    Great Article Andrew. So don’t leave SW. Transfer into Social Policy and Macro SW. Do a Ph.D or DSW in social change. I am now 71 and still an MSW,RSW teaching in International Development. I will be testifying at an MH inmate’s Board of Review for a person who has been held on a LG warrent since1982! Change is needed. As CSN&Y say: No one else can take your place! -Bill at william.sparks@rogers.com

  22. Shelly September 17, 2018 at 8:55 pm #

    I found the article interesting, but not very helpful. I found it searching ‘what do social workers to when they want to leave the profession?’ After 3 years working as a social worker and 12 years in social care unqualified, i’ve had enough. I was enthusiastic when I started and finished my degree, now I feel like I made a huge mistake and want to get out of social work.
    The article wasn’t very clear about what Andrew did to leave though.

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