The best advice for social workers: ‘Take care of yourself first – it’s not selfish, it’s necessary’

Experts in learning and development share the best advice they would give to new practitioners - from the value of always learning and seeking new challenges to the fundamental importance of self-care

Pile of books on a wooden desk with the words 'advice', 'assistance', 'guidance' and 'help' on the spines
Photo: STOATPHOTO/Adobe Stock
At Community Care Live, a panel of experts discussed the role of learning and development in attracting and retaining early-career social workers. As part of our Choose Social Work campaign, we asked each of them for the best piece of advice they would give to new social workers.

Sophie Gilbert, head of learning academy, Birmingham Children’s Trust

For me it would be: don’t stay put.

Know yourself in terms of your areas of interest and what brought you into this. But also, it’s okay that you don’t stay in a team or a service and that you try different things. Because that’s what helps with resilience and that’s what gives you that motivation.

Everybody in this world needs something that gets them out of bed in the morning and that’s really important. And if you’ve got a job that makes you not want to get out of bed in the morning, that’s the time to start moving on to new challenges.

The world of social work is so vast and there are so many opportunities to make a difference. You don’t have to leave the sector, you can try something new within it.

So, that would be my advice: don’t just go into a service and stay there for the rest of your career. Build, grow and follow your areas of interest and passion.

Lori Goossen, principal children and families social worker, Medway Council

Has anybody been on a plane recently? When they do the safety demonstration and talk about the air masks. What do they say? When the air masks come down, what do you do?

Put your mask on first. Why? Because you can’t help anyone else if you haven’t helped yourself first.

As social workers, how many of us are putting on our mask first? Not many of us.

We are in a culture where taking care of ourselves is seen as selfish, but you can’t pour from an empty cup.

If you have nothing in you to give, what are you giving at the end of the day to yourself, to your family, to your friends, what are you giving at work?

I spent far too many years of my career giving more than I had to give and then having nothing left for myself or anyone in my life. So my advice would be take care of yourself first; it’s not selfish, it’s not just ok, it’s necessary.

Find an area of work you’re passionate about, it makes the work easier and more enjoyable. But if you lose that passion, it’s okay to move on and find a new passion.

Rob Winfield, social worker, practice educator and learning and development officer, Hampshire County Council children’s services

All of us around this table and in this room work in a strengths-based way with the families and the adults with whom we work. It’s about how we develop social work so that we’re working in strengths-based ways with our staff as well.

So my message is about valuing yourself and valuing where you are on that journey. People get bogged down in doing frontline practice – they get into frontline practice and they can get lost in it, it’s so busy, so complicated, and can be so challenging sometimes – the job.

So it’s about having that pathway for yourself to understand where you’re going and what your journey looks like, so you stay strengths-based in the work that you do.

But there is a wider message too – that organisations need to work in a strengths-based way in respect of how they support staff. We know that social workers who work in a supportive environment feel empowered in the difficult work that they do in frontline children’s safeguarding.

Su Kaur, principal social worker and race equality network chair, Northumberland County Council children’s services

The only constant is change. We expect families open to children’s safeguarding to make changes in the best interests of their children! Therefore, as social work professionals and senior leaders, we too should be constantly developing ourselves and learning from those who have the latest, up-to-date information.

That’s why reverse mentoring is very important to me. We don’t know it all, and it’s the confidence to see a manager be able to say to a practitioner (especially newly- ualified social workers) ‘tell me about that theory or that piece of research’. This instils confidence in the practitioner by solidifying that they too have so much to offer.

I am hopeful this practice and value base permeates to service users whom staff work with. Service users are the experts of their lives. We just need to support them by ensuring our practice is informed by the latest research and modern theories and themes in the ever-moving landscape that is social work.

Aileen Blake, practice development social worker, Gloucestershire County Council adults’ services

We all have our L plates on, we never stop learning. I think that’s something that’s really important for everybody. And for students and newly-qualified [workers] they think ‘oh I need to know everything and I need to know it now’.

But actually, at any level of social work, you’re continuing to learn and need to learn and continue to have that enthusiasm to learn.

We are delighted to be running this workshop again online, on 16 January 2024 at 12pm. If you would like an invitation to attend, please contact rebekkah.tabern@markallengroup.com

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