Are these the six types of social worker?

Anjum Shah writes about the different kinds of social workers and how local authority systems can inhibit those with good intentions

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Photo: Zdenek/Fotolia

by Anjum Shah

Recurrent themes shape our ideas about the social work profession: high caseloads, red tape within local authorities, accountability and the effects of austerity.

Our professional experiences in a local authority are defined by national politics and economics. For many practitioners, these are implicit factors which work in the background and rarely affect the way we work – “I’m just here to do a job” is a common sentiment I’ve heard.

The professional conduct and behaviours of a social worker are shaped by two things: their unique lived experience and the environment in which they work in. In my experience, it’s been interesting to observe and learn from how social workers react to this context and as a result, have come to a few suggestions about the ‘types’ of social worker that exist.

Take this with a pinch of salt but in my time, I have seen many social workers who I’ll try describing here:

  • The Impulsive Helper 

Often the bleeding heart within the office who uses their experience of helping others to reassure feeling of self-worth within themselves. Behind their anger at authorities, whether politicians or the police, remains a desire to be an authority themselves – one that will direct the lives of others with benevolent authoritarianism. Though well intentioned, they fail to contextualise their work and battle on within a system that serves to evidence their own altruism. The impulsive helper is normally newly qualified or young in the profession and have kept hold of their ethical motives for doing the work they do. They become frustrated at the emotional disconnect they see in some social workers and offer us an uncomfortable reminder of where our hearts should be.

  • The Robotic Conformist 

They have little understanding of the central values of the profession and live off of it by operating as a cog within bureaucratic structures. Hidden behind administration duties, their day consists of writing accurate case recordings to evidence that every question that needs to be asked was asked. They are bound by job security and have no desire to challenge the inequalities within the system. They are representative of the public stereotype of an inadequate social worker who is authoritative and determined to maintain the status quo. Unfortunately, every decision and assessment they make is plagued by echoes of horrifying serious case reviews and worries of making mistakes and accountability. They generally care deep down but have been browbeaten by the monster of public opinion and blame culture into conforming to the status quo.

  • The Organiser 

They are a different brand of authoritarian who see themselves as a scientist or social behavioural expert. They believe they are making the world better by understanding people in view of a few theoretical approaches. Uncritical acceptance of these theories leads them to believe that every service user needs a diagnosis. They view themselves as essentially objective of the world in which they work  and are irritated by what appears as chaotic and irrational. Occasionally, this makes them intolerant to diversity of thought. Organisers are strong candidates for team leader and practice educator positions because they’re very good at drawing theory to practice links and helping others do the same. Their assessment writing is thorough, detailed and fits precisely into the framework of their employer.

  • The Solid Plodder

They have occupied the middle position and are pragmatists who want to know what works and what doesn’t. They wear the mask of the organiser and conformist while remaining wary of the impulsive approach. They see change as a gradual thing and want to work within the system to support this, which makes them one of the most successful professional social workers.

  • The Rebel 

Rebels know what’s wrong with the world and want to lead people towards changing it, taking the risks necessary to do this. They are limited by the structure of the local authority and eventually conform to it or leaves the profession. In today’s language they are slurred by being called a social justice warrior but what remains important to them are the values of social justice and welfare.

  • The Wayfarer 

Comfortable with the ambiguities of life and rarely seen within a local authority, they are comfortable in an environment which asks the greater questions on purpose and existence. Humble in their advice and aware of their own limitations, wayfarers rarely make universal claims, and if they do, they acknowledge their subjectivity. They do not have the answers to all questions but have learned to listen to and live with the uncertainties of life. They appreciate the importance of challenging inequality like rebels but differ because they want to aid people to reconstruct how they think about the world instead of squashing explicit inequality.

The reality 

Of course, we have shades of each of these characters in us at various stages of our career. The sad part is that we can get stuck in one stage and remain unchallenged if the requirements of the job are simply met while in it.

However, the existence of these characters raises questions about the working context that shapes us. Is social work within a local authority a space for us to be seriously reflexive about our role and duty? Can we do this and manage the expectations of work?

Is there a detachment between social work ethics and professional practice, if so, what does this mean for our professional identity?

Local authority social work, in my experience, has lost its identity which was born from principles of welfare. What remains is an arm of the government with politically skewed definitions of care, independence and wellbeing. In such politically defined working environments, it does not surprise me that practitioners have moulded in to professional characters that might decide whether they stay in local authority throughout their career. Reflecting on our characters we might guess that the impulsive helper is a candidate for emotional burn out; the conformist, somebody who plateaus as a level 3 social worker and spends a career in the local authority; the organiser and solid plodders, with their attention to some theory make good team leaders; the rebel’s frustration might lead them to the charity sector and the wayfarer may evolve in to a detached academic.

What shapes the environment?

The evolution of services is predicated on these people but a conversation about the politics that shape the environment is not happening in the right places. If practitioners are expected to evolve then so to should the context in which they work by a serious reconsideration of its espoused ambitions. Of course, none of this would be an issue if our theoretical base did not espouse ethics which practice fails to deliver on.

An explicit knowledge of the political landscape that shapes our working context needs to form the foundation of training new social workers. I believe the following questions are a good place to start: How do right, left or centrist politics shape social policy? What effect does this have on the working environment, methods and professional character of social workers?

If these were discussed in the right place social workers might have a greater self-awareness of what we’re actually doing and achieve structural changes that will trickle down to practice. But if ignored, systems of working will continually be recycled and the alleged inadequacy of social work will perpetuate.

Anjum is a social worker working in a mental health charity and a trainee CBT therapist.

10 Responses to Are these the six types of social worker?

  1. David Ray December 11, 2018 at 3:33 pm #

    Hello Anjum,

    I currently study social care through an access course, one of the main points that we learn during the shaping of social policy and welfare is who was leading the country and how it shaped the policies we have today.

    Hope this helps,

    Kind regards,

    David

  2. Helen Wood December 11, 2018 at 7:42 pm #

    It must be difficult to address these issues on a course. I agree with you but Id go further, social workers are natural politicians- they work wiyh systems and individuals, they dont fear challenging at any level, because abuse crosses all boundaries, and they deal with adverse public reaction on a daily basis. There is a big question for me about why these incredibly skilled people are not in parliament in any numbers- and one of the answers is how busy everyone is. The other is si.ply a matter of self image and positionning. Maybe its easier to achieve than we think?

  3. Matthew Smith December 11, 2018 at 8:45 pm #

    I left. I spent years challenging what I felt were the inequalities within the local authority and the ways in which they sought to support people. The political landscape was completely ignored by the majority of managers, senior managers as well as practitioners who failed to put their heads above the parapet and call out inequality. In the end, yes, it knackered me out and when a life choice came along, I left the profession that I loved.

    • Madge December 12, 2018 at 12:44 pm #

      What did you go on to do?

    • Helen Wood December 15, 2018 at 7:00 am #

      Failed? Or were too bloody knackered and felt too compromised? Its so easy to fail a social worker because the work is so subjective.
      Did you know that one of the things that Blairs government did was reverse the law on political restriction by salary- previous to Blair people above a certain salary in a local authority could not stand for election to local councils- not even a different one from where they worked. A lot of people still wouldnt see it as an option, and believe they are politically restricted- which they are not.

  4. Julie Parkhurst December 14, 2018 at 9:34 am #

    Interesting article. In my view it would be much more valid if it contained within it some understanding from the service user or ‘victim’ of the systems experience of social workers. Let’s be honest, social work practice, it’s scope, remit and priory for funding within our society is now way out of step and all too often is now failing the people it is supposed to champion and support.

    • Helen Wood December 15, 2018 at 7:02 am #

      Julie what is failling? Is it social work or is it politics?

  5. Paul December 14, 2018 at 10:20 pm #

    I’m not sure about the validity of these characters. They are interesting though and a similar approach has been done in relation to how social workers use creativity. Eg Heus and Pincus. I do agree that local authorities are not good places to allow social workers to show their full potential. After 25 years I moved from working in a local authority to the voluntary sector for this reason and I would never go back now. It is the culture of the voluntary sector that is really influential though – not that I have changed as a person or how I practice. It is just easier to do good practice in the vol sector and that is what makes the job satisfying. University’s also have some responsibility in making sure they select the right types of people to become social workers. I’m not sure they always do! Social work as a profession has a very large variation in academic ability comapred to other professions. It most likely varies in other types of intelligence such as emitional intelligence. One has to wonder how this variation plays with social work styles?

    • Sarah December 17, 2018 at 12:37 pm #

      I think the point about the range of academic abilities is interesting and also well reflected in this article. Through social works desire to validate lived experience (which is important), it’s lost sight of the importance of academic rigour.

      I think the point of the article is more to highlight the toxic culture of local authority social work and not to embarrass individual workers. Simply put, they’re a product of thier enviroment and this is just an individual reflection of that environment. I think it’s a great piece.

    • Nenna December 23, 2018 at 9:33 am #

      When we talk of Universities having a responsibility to make sure they select the right type of people to become Social Workers, ought we not to be asking what is meant by “right”? terms like that are extraordinarily subjective. What is “right” in YOUR eyes, may not be right for somebody else. It worries me that you make a comment like this about who, or what, is “right”, and fail to understand just how subjective such terminology is. I would have hoped that as a Social Worker with several years of experience, you might understand that people are all different and thus have different perspectives and different styles of working.

      Academic ability is far from the only factor that may affect the way a person carries out a job, although I would agree that maybe there is a huge problem with allowing people into a job when they have failed at school, or have shown little to no academic capability. If they lack basic skills in this manner, then how can they be trusted to document assessments accurately, or to do the required study and ongoing learning to maintain their skills and knowledge? How can they meet any requirements for evidence based practice?

      Emotional intelligence, as you call it, is a little more complicated. Again, this is because we are looking at something that is somewhat subjective, and very much experientially-related. No two people have the same personality makeup, and life experience, and this affects emotional intelligence as it may be evidenced in them. Whilst it may make sense to be concerned about workers who appear to show complete lack of empathy, or come across as abusive whilst doing their job (and one would hope they are few and far-between), the issue of what is “right” when it comes to emotional intelligence is once more a tricky thing.

      Perhaps where you went awry was in failing to take a holistic view (a little worrying in someone with 25 or more years’ experience)? You might have considered the possibility that different areas of work may require different types of working. Will a Social Worker in, say, a service for Mental Health work in EXACTLY the same manner as a Social Worker in Children services? What if a service has a Forensic remit? Or requires ASW duties? Whilst some skills may be transferrable, it may be that Social Workers providing different types of service have to work differently in order to meet the needs of diverse service-users, and to work within the remit of any legislation and policies by which they are bound (whether they like it or not).

      Finally, going back to the issue of who is “right” to become a Social Worker… well, perspectives on that might vary considerably. There are some people who might argue that they would never want ex criminals, or drug addicts – for example – to be Social Workers; other people, however, argue that such individuals might (if reformed) make good Social Workers because they are able to empathise with individuals who are going through similar experiences, and they have a lot of personal understanding. There are people who sneer at the idea of employing somebody who is known, or thought, to have mental health problems; but other people again might say such individuals may make good Social Workers because of their personal experience, plus the empathy and insight this may afford them. There are all sorts of debates raging about the level of intellectual ability, and qualifications, required.

      But how do we judge “right”? Some people might say that a Social Worker is not right for the job if he/she is only in it for the money. Some people might worry about the commitment of a Social Worker who “moonlights” between the public sector and the voluntary, or private, sectors – asking why it is that they take on so many different roles, only to complain? Some people might be concerned that there are Social Workers with several years’ experience, and who sometimes are ASW level, but who cut their hours to part time, meaning that responsibility for such things as caseloads and ASW duties falls more heavily on the shoulders of newer, less experienced, staff. Some people may be concerned about the motivation of Social Workers who continue to work for an employer, whilst making it known that they are setting up their own private practice or enterprise. And, then, there are the Social Workers (experienced and otherwise) who just moan about the job for much of the time that they are at work. There are the ones who go to work, but just go through the motions. And what about the sort of Social Worker who will stand by and do nothing, whilst a colleague risks his/her neck by “whistleblowing” on poor practices, or lack of resources? There are plenty such people in Social Work. Just who is “right”?

      Surely, a job like Social Work should be about recognising people’s inherent diversity, including that of STAFF – and working with it. Nurturing all staff, irrespective of different working styles, so that they can be the best Social Workers they could possibly be? When we recognise that people are different, and thus bring different insights and experiences to the job, we surely recognise that this impacts on working style. But, we also learn to understand that this does NOT necessarily make any given way of working “right” – rather, it implies that employers and staff should accept a degree of difference amongst colleagues, and encourage them to share their personal views, knowledge, and experience in ways that are appropriate, and applicable to them and their place of work.

      Whether in an L.A., or otherwise, it is surely important for any Social Worker to be supported, nurtured and encouraged to meet their potential, and to thrive in the job, whilst working to the best of their ability and in their own natural way. It would NOT do if every Social Worker were identical – we are NOT clones, or robots, and service users are all different. Every person has their own style, it is a part of their individual identity. When it comes to working style, and ability, then it is a savvy employer who knows how to capitalize on people’s individuality and individual style, to maximise potential.