Most social workers feel their daily work is a battle, and often a losing one. Resources are desperately short, decent supervision rarely happens, the (electronic) paperwork is overwhelming, the work itself is complex, anxiety-provoking and sometimes frightening or dangerous. Children and adults are often left in risky situations with social workers carrying the worry and the responsibility. Yet public and media opinion is rarely on our side. Surprising on the face of it then that the Guardian’s recent social care survey found that 78% of social workers find the job rewarding, and 63% said they were ‘happy’, although in 2008 the latter figure was 82%. On the other hand, this year 52% say they would definitely or possibly consider leaving the sector and more than 80% report feeling ground down by excess bureaucracy, heavy workloads and the public image of the profession. Social workers want improvements in these conditions, more than they want higher salaries. How to make sense of all this?
Well, social workers are highly committed to their jobs and what they mean, are prepared to give more to our society than they want to take out, find the work fulfulling but exhausting, and are deeply frustrated by the conditions that prevent them spending more time with their clients and service users. One of the central battles we all feel we are losing is the right to be able to do the job we signed up for – working with people to ‘make a difference’. It all adds up to social workers feeling very conflicted about themselves and their profession.
Like everyone else I find all this very troubling, but I also don’t find it surprising. Social work has always been right there, battling away at the heart of some of our society’s deepest and most enduring conflicts. Tonight I’ve been watching the BBC documentary on the Baby P case, and a Newsnight interview with Sharon Shoesmith, potent reminders of how closely associated social workers are with some of the most explosive, intimate, and disturbing issues that, most of the time, lurk just under the surface of ordinary public awareness or concern.
Two weeks ago CSWP held an evening seminar in collaboration with several other organisations to mark the publication of a special issue of the Journal of Social Work Practice reflecting on the state of child protection work in England three years after the Munro Review. The event was packed out and Eileen Munro was among the speakers. But one intervention from the audience especially struck me – the first contribution to the open dialogue we held at the end. A social worker spoke passionately about how important, but also rare, it is to attend a forum in which there was ‘space for reflection’ on the experience and meaning of doing the work – a space to think.
Every week I spend a good deal of my time facilitating small group ‘spaces’ for experienced practitioners in which they can speak openly about their work, and then listen and learn from the reflections and analytic perspectives of colleagues. In my organization we call these spaces ‘work discussion’ and social workers generally find them invaluable. They operate at the boundary, the meeting point, between the professional ‘self’ of the worker, and their more private emotional and personal ‘self’; the zone where the intense emotional and ethical impact of the work, the resources and training of the individual professional , and the vulnerable and ordinarily human person doing the job all meet – or collide. Scratch the surface of most social workers’ daily experience and you will find they are carrying an extraordinary burden of complex experience and responsibility in relation to certain cases. Sometimes these experiences relate to cases they held long ago – deeply troubling and conflictual situations in which the worker feels unable to ‘let go’ of their sense of disturbance, or responsibility.
At the seminar I spoke about the paper I contributed to the JSWP special issue, in which I wrote about the history of child protection work in England as a series of public ‘crises’ in which society itself is confronted with new and disturbing ‘dangerous knowledge’ about itself, about what is happening, and has probably always been happening, in its midst. First of all the fact of widespread physical maltreatment of children, then the realization that intra-familial sexual abuse is a common rather than an exceptional occurrence, the gradual acceptance of ‘organised’ and systemic institutional abuse, and so on. The ‘scandals’ or moral panics that attend these revelations in the public sphere are extremely unsettling and often attended by powerful denial, or displacements of anxiety and guilt onto social workers themselves.
Thus it seems to me that social workers’ ‘private’ experience of their daily work embodies something much wider and more profound that we need to recognize better – the function we perform individually and collectively as a ‘container’ for these intense and disturbing realities that the rest of society does not want to recognize or be bothered by. But there is another, more hopeful truth that sits alongside this rather sobering idea, because many of the key outbreaks of public and political anxiety about child protection have also resulted in progress.
As a society we are now a little more able to accept the reality of various forms of child maltreatment, and incorporate this awareness into our professional practices. After the Rotherham report, the organized sexual exploitation of children can probably never be so easily and systematically denied in the way Alexis Jay’s inquiry revealed it had been, just as after the Cleveland ‘crisis’ of 1987 the prevalence child sexual abuse could no longer be dismissed as a fantasy, or something that only happened in particular aberrant communities.
Social workers are central actors in this story of painful, slow and conflicted social progress, and it is something of which we should be proud. This is why I suggest that even though we often feel we are fighting a losing battle, maybe we are also part of winning a war. But no wonder also, that when asked how we feel about the job, we come up with contradictory answers.
You can access all the papers in the special issue of the Journal of Social Work Practice mentioned above until the end of November