By Brendan Clifford, Karen Chance and Sandra Ashton-Jones
It was heart-breaking to read the experience of one newly qualified social worker in Community Care a while ago. Here was a social worker apparently done-in after less than a year in the profession, unsure if social work was the right profession for them.
The experience seemed to have been lousy. Commitments to supervision appeared to have been routinely broken. Organisational anxieties about Ofsted seemed to feed through to the author and their peers in their Assessed Year in Employment. Overall, the practitioner seemed deeply disheartened.
This experience made myself, Brendan Clifford, Karen Chance and Sandra Ashton-Jones reflect on our own experiences of working as social workers. We asked ourselves, reflecting over the cumulative 80-plus years’ experience between us – can looking back at our careers help any of those starting out today?
Through a Twitter exchange we got thinking, and decided to try to capture our thoughts on some of the factors that have supported us to continue in long social work careers. Below are personal accounts from each of us, looking at some of the highlights, challenges and changes we encountered along the way.
Karen Chance: a strong personal value base, organisational support and self-care
I am now a mental health service manager and have always worked for local authorities, mainly in the fields of substance misuse and mental health.
I can identify three main areas that have contributed to my longevity in the social work profession: my personal value base; the support provided by the organisations I’ve worked for; and self-care.
Regarding self-care, it has been important to work hard but to be realistic about what I can achieve as an individual. I tell myself that I’m just not able to resolve every area of difficulty for everyone. I have had to learn to keep the boundaries of my role firm, whilst trying to maintain a healthy sense of proportion. When I don’t, it can result in feelings of anxiety and burden.
I also feel that a strong sense of social justice and belief in universal human rights help to express aspects of myself, which have provided me with job satisfaction even when times are tough. However, I also think that spending time doing things I enjoy away from work, has been crucial to my well-being. Simply walking in nature is an activity that has a hugely positive effect on me, and one that helps me keep a balance in my life and an awareness of my connection to the world.
Sandra Ashton-Jones: the importance of a supportive line manager and good supervision
I had the most amazing line manager in one of my early roles in Islington. I learned a lot from his approach. He was a great advocate and mentor, had empathy and was by our side in difficult situations – not to take over, but to support. As a manager he didn’t expect anything from anyone which he wouldn’t do himself.
Additionally, I think that family work, community work and a lot of creativity was squeezed out of social work with adults following the NHS and Community Care Act. However, I think the emphasis is shifting again now as use of models like three conversations are spreading and renewing interest in community approaches. I believe this could help increase satisfaction in the role.
In safeguarding practice, for instance, the move from investigation-led to an outcomes-led model is not only delivering a better experience for people, but also more satisfaction for social workers in our roles. Often, people just want the opportunity and space to talk to resolve issues.
Looking back, I think changes in my role have helped maintain my passion for social work. A little bit of ‘nosiness’ has helped, to be honest. For me, change seemed to happen every three years or so. I have found ‘acting-up’ or ‘acting-across’ are safe ways of developing into roles I have taken on over the years, and I believe I am still very much a social worker, even though most of my work is more strategic now.
Brendan Clifford: moving employers, decision making and a little bit of luck
My work and practice seemed to change in some ways almost every year, even when I hadn’t formally changed roles. I never felt that there was a compromise between my social work values and the strategic roles I occupied at a distance from direct practice with citizens. The Professional Capability Framework shows this explicitly now which is good.
I feel that moving employers helped me to develop my horizons as a social worker, although I recognise that this isn’t always easy. From my experience, family commitments, location, opportunity, the colleagues in your team, the style of your organisation and even one’s own ‘comfort zone’ are all factors which can affect your decisions.
Hard work, courage, a little bit of luck from time to time and curiosity have all helped, I think. But I don’t think any of these are enough by themselves – context matters, too. For instance, if the organisation I have worked for values learning and development, in addition to my own personal responsibility as a registered social worker.
I think that sometimes it may take time for social workers to ‘find their level’ or where their own interests, skills and experience seem to fit best. Some find a ‘buzz’ in certain areas – with a specific group, such as working with people with learning disabilities or in safeguarding, for example.
I’m not sure if the different practice contexts in working mainly with either adults or children, in or beyond the local authority sector, helps or hinders. I know that pay and available resources, affect our decisions about social work career development.
We acknowledge that we may be wearing ‘rose-tinted glasses’ in looking back but we are clear that it wasn’t always easy in all times and places. We’d hope that if sharing experiences in this or similar ways helps one person stick with social work even after a difficult time, then it will have been worth it.
Brendan Clifford first qualified as a social worker in 1992 and now practices as an independent consultant working with the Black Country directors of adult social services and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE), amongst others.
Sandra Ashton-Jones first qualified as a social worker in 1988 and is now head of service in the City of Wolverhampton Council.
Karen Chance first qualified as a social worker in 1997 and is now mental health service manager for City of Wolverhampton Council.