Reflections from the Frontline of a social worker

As I speak to social workers daily about the challenges they face in such a demanding role, I’m on a quest to better understand just what life as a social worker is really like, in the hope of being able to offer them a better service when they call me. So I teamed up with the Socialis Laborator, an experienced worker, and asked for a bit of an insight as to just what it is like working in this industry.

It’s 8.30am and business has started for the day. Orders are in and are distributed to the workers to meet the demand. There is no food being served unless you count a quick coffee, a piece of toast or a bowl of cereal. Is this the last part of the breakfast rush at McDonalds? No, this is the start of a day in the life of a social work office in Britain. This is where the day’s activities come in and are given to workers sometimes before their arrival in the office. Up and down the country, the day starts this way for many social workers.

There are many strands to the question as to why abuse and neglect occur in society. However, when looking at contributing factors, and by using a more scientific frame of reference, we can see that the divide between those that have and those who do not, is widening on a daily basis. Too many people’s prospects remain bleak as they face on a daily basis the horrendous scourges of the poor, domestic disputes, inescapable threats of violence. Alcohol and drug misuse can be married with mental health issue, the poverty and the real lack of the basics such as even beds and beddings, which I regularly witness, visiting houses where children sleep on the floor.

Coming into social work is never easy at any time. You’re facing competing priorities both of a financial and political nature on a daily basis. Audits and ‘improving’ systems are never ending in that managers can micromanage and therefore stifle what you are trying to achieve. On top of that high caseloads, sickness and stress abound for those in and around both children and adult services.

What the Universities are teaching is the framework for practice, yet even the placements that social workers in training get are not necessarily gearing them up for the challenges of modern social work practice. This isn’t a criticism, just a realism from my discussion with a variety of social workers undertaking their training. Social workers in training need this exposure in a safe way to develop their learning and practice. Families need to be confident that the work is overseen by experienced practitioners to ensure that they get the level of service that they need.

I talk to colleagues who either have practice educator qualifications enabling them to oversee the work or are working towards this. Pressures and expectations are present for both parties in the working relationship with the stressors of time and workload in particular. In adult services the link for experienced practitioners is that they have to do undertake the educator training programme or if qualified they need to take students as part of their role. Choice, therefore is not always present and this can lead to further pressures and resentment. Is this conducive to creating the best learning opportunities and development for the best workers coming into the field?

As social workers, You’re going out into communities that you may feel are little or no different to one’s which you may have been brought up in, although the climate through the passing of time invariably changes the landscape to a significant degree. Meetings abound where professional courtesies are tested and relationships skewered when you just don’t have enough evidence to take the course of action that other agencies may consider necessary.

You may well be vilified, spat at and looked down upon, yet you’ll go and deliver the difficult messages because you know that very few others can or will. You trained for a reason and now it’s time to compensate those children with the time you spent learning. Usually, you are the one who is challenged and cross examined. You learn to debate a considered position, develop strategies and most importantly safeguard those that need protecting. You do it because you are a social worker, and they are not. Yes, you have the occasional sleepless night, but it is better to do something than to do nothing.

Welcome to our wonderful world, welcome to social work!

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