Why social workers choose to stay

As the sector's retention rates continue to deteriorate, we asked social workers why they have chosen to remain in the profession

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The purpose of Community Care’s Choose Social Work campaign is to promote social work as a fulfilling, worthwhile career.

However, it is difficult to discuss choosing this profession without addressing the deepening retention issues it is battling.

The number of council children’s social workers quitting their posts annually rose by 40% from 2016-17 to 2021-22, while the turnover rate in adults’ services has increased from 13.6% in 2019-20 to 17.1% in 2021-22.

Within children’s services, there is evidence that most leavers have quit the sector altogether rather than move between authorities.

So why do social workers choose to stay in the profession?

We put this question to practitioners at this year’s Community Care Live. Their responses shed light on some of the key reasons why social workers stay committed to their profession.

‘It’s not a job, it’s a vocation’

Stuart Kalaigye, originally from Uganda, migrated to England after studying in Russia for a few years, only to find himself unemployed and homeless.

Now an experienced social worker who has worked in both adults’ and children’s services, Stuart said that all he wanted to do was support people.

“I didn’t want people to have to go through what I went through,” he said.  “I wanted to be there, guiding them to better themselves. It’s just a passion. It’s a passion that has stopped being a job – it is now a vocation. I think that’s why I’ve stayed really.

“It’s not a job anymore. You sometimes think, ‘I’ve done this, I’ve done that, [what] am I doing here?’, and you had a very horrible day yesterday. But then you are the first person getting in the office the next day. That’s when you realise why you’re doing it. It’s because you want to make a change in people’s lives.”

His passion for social work was echoed by Justin Wall, a practitioner returning to the profession six years after the loss of his twin brother.

“I didn’t want to leave it any longer in case I deskilled myself. I thought that if I didn’t get back to social work – what I’ve always been trying to do – it’d be a travesty.

“I really enjoy seeing families making positive changes. When you start working with them, they have all manners of issues going on, and then…you see real progress with intervention.”

‘A job that matters.’

Despite qualifying just three years ago, Hannah Groves is already a senior children’s social worker in the South East.

On difficult days when she feels overwhelmed, the children she works with are what keeps her from contemplating leaving.

“I really enjoy working with the children, and when they turn 18, it hits hard,” she said. “I’m usually quite sad to say goodbye to them.

“Just recently, a child I had worked with for a few years was turning 18 and I thought, ‘They’ll be fine, I can leave’, but saying goodbye was actually really sad. It shows that even the kids who don’t seem attached, do get a lot from us working with them. I like doing a job that actually matters.

“I don’t think I’ll leave. Even if I did move, it would always be within social work. I couldn’t do anything else. This sounds really cheesy, but I believe this is what I’m meant to do. It feels right.”

‘My team is why I stayed’

For Hannah, the support she has received from her team in progressing her career has been vital.

“It’s nice to have encouragement,” she said. “I’ve only been here for three years. I did my ASYE, did my portfolio, and then had encouragement to go for a senior role. I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve not been here that long, I don’t think I’m ready’, but they were like, ‘Do the interview’, and I did, and I got the job.

“I was a bit unsure if I was ready because of how long I had been here, but it was nice that they acknowledged it’s not about how long I’ve been here, it’s about my actual practice. Other people don’t progress that quickly because they don’t want to. But if you are eager, they see it and they cultivate it.”

Similarly, Emma Murphy’s choice to stay in children’s social work was cemented because of the team surrounding her throughout her placement.

Before that, during university, she had been encouraged to try adults’ services for better work conditions.

“I think throughout your degree, you are put off from working with children and it’s more like ,’You should try adults’.

“But I knew I didn’t want to do that and my placement in a children’s social work team really supported me to be confident in what I was doing,” she said.

“It just felt like I had slotted in, and I think that’s really nice when you’re going into a whole new profession – to actually feel like you belong.

“Especially during Covid, [when I started] to go into an approachable team, where you already felt comfortable, it was the reason I stayed in children’s social work.”

‘When you have lived experience, you can support someone better’

Other social workers were instead inspired after bearing witness to the hardships their loved ones had gone through.

“When I meet some clients, what comes back to my mind is a family member I have who suffers from mental health issues,” said Olukayode Fashola, a social work student.

“Through my work, I connect with them. It also makes me reflect. How would I want my own person to be treated? When you have lived experience, you’re able to support someone better.”

Andrew Joseph, a social worker in London, began his journey “to make a difference” after struggling to find help within his community for his family.

“I’ve had extremely ill family members that needed support, but the kind of support that they needed was difficult to get from inside the community. So now, for me, if I could come in and try and make a difference, even with the way the system is, it would be enough.

“Hopefully, that journey will take me further and I’ll be able to help people within my community.”

What makes you remain in social work during difficult days? Tell us in the comments below.

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