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Why Social Work?

A reflective series of blog posts from the Programme Team Consultant Social Workers, Debora Stewart, Shazia Begum and Sarah Brain [2021-2022]

 

Debora Stewart, Consultant Social Worker

One of my favourite descriptions of social work is “doing with, not doing to”. We work in partnership with people, services and professionals, and we work to empower people to be in control of their own lives.

I was attracted to a career in social work because I recognised that social workers care about social justice and help to make society more fair and equal. My interest was sparked by a conversation with a mother about her daughter’s experience of education as an adult with significant disabilities. The idea that she may not have the same opportunities or access to education because of her disability seemed so unfair to me, and I wanted to work in a profession which helps to reduce these inequalities. Although I didn’t realise it then, this was my personal values aligning with social work values, pointing me in the direction of a social work career.


I have worked in different areas of adults’ social work since qualifying in 2009, and now there is no other career I’d want to do. I started out in hospital social work which gave me fantastic experience of working in a big multi-disciplinary team of doctors, nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, working together to assess and plan safe discharges for people. I could be asked to work with any adult from 18+ with care and support needs, and the role included rotation onto different wards including the A&E department. That was an eye-opener! Hospital social work is fast-paced, and provides learning in a range of areas, so it was great for my first position.


I then worked in community teams, including with older people and adults 18-64 with physical impairments and learning disabilities. I loved community social work, it was a great honour to meet people in their own homes and to be able to work with them to understand their situation and make plans for support. A lot of this work was helping to make sure people had the right care and support so that they could live their best life, but it also involved safeguarding- recognising abuse and neglect, putting agreed measures in place to protect and also help people to take considered risks. No day is the same in social work- each day is as different as the people we work with.


One of my favourite descriptions of social work is “doing with, not doing to”. We work in partnership with people, services and professionals, and we work to empower people to be in control of their own lives. Social work is about people, and I love social work because we see the person first, not their disability or their background. We seek ways to make society and environments a better fit for that person, not the other way around. Being a social worker has helped me to appreciate the worth of all people, including myself, and has given me some fantastic life experience, knowledge and skills.


I now work as a Consultant Social Worker, using the skills and knowledge I’ve gained over the last 12 years to support social work teaching, training and development. I work with staff from universities, local authorities (councils) and trusts, to help ensure social workers are taught and trained to a high standard. I now have the privilege of working with students and helping to shape the next generation of social workers, which is a wonderful position to have.

If you’re considering a career in social work….

A lot of people will start considering a social work career because they want to make a difference. This is a great starting point, and the rewards in social work do come from being part of positive change in someone’s life. The reality is that as social workers we enter someone’s life when things are not going well, and that we will often have to make difficult decisions which are not always appreciated and welcomed. We can’t always help people in the way that they feel is best because of the systems in place and the resources available. This can be tough and frustrating, because we want to do our best for the people we work with, but we support each other through the difficult times, sharing our knowledge and experience to help others in our team.


Social workers work with lots of different people, in various settings. For example, we work with children and families, children and adults with disabilities, older people, people experiencing mental health difficulties. We work in hospitals, hospices and schools and prisons (amongst others). These are all different types of social work, but our profession’s values and ethics underpin and guide all social work practice. There is so much information our there about social work- do your research before applying to study. There are videos, blogs and websites which will help you to understand more about what social workers do. You can also look on the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership website which has lots of useful resources, information and tips for anyone interested in social work.


I hope this blog post helps you on your own journey into social work. It’s a wonderful supportive profession, and I wouldn’t be anywhere else.


 

Shazia Begum, Consultant Social Worker

I am big advocate for social workers from the BME communities to join mental health services. There is a worrying low number of women from the BME community working in mental health services and this is something that I want to change.

My interest in social work developed whilst in my final year of my Sociology and Psychology degree. I have always had a keen interest in people on an individual and societal level and it felt like a natural progression joining the social work profession.


This led me to apply for an MA in Social Work and taking up a volunteering job in a specialist Domestic Violence service in Dudley. I enjoyed my course immensely and in my final year I became interested in learning more about working with adults with mental health difficulties.


My dissertation focussed on exploring the reasons behind a low uptake of mental health services by people from BME backgrounds. Just before I completed my MA, I was recruited to join Birmingham Social Services in their Adult Mental Health service in 2005. Over the years I have experienced many changes in social work, worked in various teams and with many professionals in the legal, medical, criminal justice, housing, and immigration system. Most of all I have had the opportunity to support the most vulnerable people and their families in our society. My citizens taught me that despite their struggles they had a strong desire to improve their lives and contribute to society in a meaningful way. As a social worker my role was to facilitate this and this, for me is the crux of social work.


Over the years I have encouraged students and newly qualified social workers to join mental health. I am big advocate for social workers from the BME communities to join mental health services. There is a worrying low number of women from the BME community working in mental health services and this is something that I want to change. I completed my PEPS stage 1 and stage 2 to support students and raise the awareness of working in adult mental health services. My AMHP training will further this awareness and encourage more social workers to work in mental health.

 

Sarah Brain, Consultant Social Worker

Social workers go about their jobs every day making the world a better place, making a difference even when we don’t feel like it and its important to hold on to that.

My social work career began back in 2009, only 13 years ago and yet it feels like another lifetime away! After undertaking some voluntary work for a local Home Start charity, successful completion of the Access to Higher Education course and lots of preparatory reading, I attended an interview for the social work undergraduate degree at Keele University. When asked what motivated me to be a social worker, I enthusiastically and honestly explained that I wanted to help people and make a difference in the world. When asked what skills I thought were important in social work I was confidently able to identify that being a good listener, having empathy and a commitment to equality and diversity were all key elements in my chosen career. I was successful that day in securing a place on the BA Social Work degree and the rest, as they say, is history.


Looking back now through the lens of my current self, I feel my initial idea of social work was somewhat naïve, as of course, the reality is that social work is a truly complex, challenging and often stressful role that requires many skills beyond the ones that tend to come to mind. Based on my experiences in the last nine years I could add other ingredients to my original ‘what makes a good social worker’ list; miracle worker –myself and colleagues have often hung up the phone and joked that social workers are seemingly expected to perform miracles, human sponge – because social workers are constantly absorbing the trauma and distress of other human beings as well as also holding our own lives together and finally, resilience – to bounce back from the challenges, setbacks and vicarious trauma. When I moved on to a leadership role the analogy that soon came to mind is one of a duck gliding with grace on the water, yet no one can see its feet franticly kicking under the surface! Social work must be recognised for its complex, powerful role in intervening in people’s lives, championing for social justice and human rights and striving for positive change. My career path in social work has seen me qualify as a Best Interests Assessor, with a keen interest in mental capacity and passion for supporting adults to make their own life decisions where possible and where they cannot, doing everything I can to ensure the right decision is made for that person.


First and fore-most, social workers are champions for human rights and social justice. We work in a system that often feels like it works against us and the people we support. Social work certainly comes with its challenges, I have had low times and times where I have doubted myself. However, social work has taught me how to be flexible and adaptable. It has taught me that change isn’t always a bad thing and that even when we face challenges, this is an opportunity to learn and grow into better people and better social workers. Social work has taught me that sometimes, the smallest things like the relationships we have with people count for a lot and can be a tool for achieving positive change even when it feels like we have limited resources at our disposal.


Social workers are advocates, facilitators, problem-solvers and negotiators amongst many other things. We are required to have an all -round knowledge of so many different things which feels over-whelming at times. However, I feel like, I personally have gained so much knowledge in my time as a social worker that I have been able to share with adults and carers, helping them make informed choice. Sharing my knowledge and using it to support people to make positive changes in their lives is so rewarding. Not only this but I have learned so much that has helped me grow as a person. I no longer take things for granted and try to avoid making assumptions. This spills out into all areas of my life and has made me a much more tolerant, understanding, and open -minded person because of my experiences as a social worker. It is humbling to see the strength, resilience, and courage of people as they face such difficulties in their lives, and I have learned that strength comes from adversity.


Social work has allowed me the privilege to come into people’s lives when they are often at their worst. I have felt the incredible sense of responsibility when tasked with making significant life decisions on behalf of some of society’s most vulnerable people. There is always a sense that no matter which decision we make, is this the right one? Of course, the pursuit of human rights in social work is full of ethical dilemmas! I have been involved in making decisions on behalf of adults that have been at odds with their own wishes and these have been the hardest to come to terms with. However, even when a person’s overall situation is at odds with what they want for themselves, the social worker’s role is fundamental to ensuring that their choice and control over their life is maximised even in the smallest of ways. For example, a move into long term residential or nursing care for an adult who lacks capacity and whose deeply held wish is to remain in their own home can be profoundly distressing for them as well as for their family. As a social worker I have advocated for adults to ensure their day-to-day care plan is person-centred and that the small things that can give that person choice and control over their life are maximised.


As a social worker I have had to confront the emotional distress of families as they face guilt, frustration, grief, fear and despair at seeing their loved ones suffer and feeling helpless and hopeless in the face of all these emotions. However, workers can and do make a huge difference in supporting adults and their families through these times. Relationships are the building blocks of social work and through the power of relationships I have been able to give adults and their families a renewed sense of hope and to feel more in control over their own lives. Sometimes this is as simple as offering information and advice, listening with the intent to understand and being clear what we can and cannot achieve for people. Honesty and transparency continue to be my guiding principles in social work and are the foundation to building positive relationships with all we work with.


Social work has seen me work with people who, due to their circumstances, be that physical or mental health, substance and alcohol dependency or frailty due to older age, are unable to protect themselves from abuse and neglect and have lost their voice to speak up for themselves. I have had great satisfaction within my social work career, knowing that I have helped safeguard vulnerable adults and help make positive changes in their lives. However, there is an ever-fine balance to be held, between care and control and so often, the desire to protect from harm can lead to adults being treated as if unable to think and make decisions for themselves, their choice and control over their life being stifled. During these times, social workers have a crucial role in advocating for those we work with, supporting people to achieve the outcomes that are so important to them and I find this aspect of the role so fulfilling and rewarding.


My current role as a Consultant Social Worker in the West Midlands Social Work Teaching Partnership has allowed me to focus on a particular passion of mine which is practice education and workforce development. Working with a diverse range of people at different levels of social work from across the West Midlands has broadened my understanding of social work beyond what goes on in my own local authority. I have developed skills in project management and an understanding of the more strategic roles and functions within social work. I have been constantly been taken out of my comfort zone and challenged by the diverse people I have worked with whose passion and commitment has been inspiring to me. I have learnt that no matter what challenges social work faces as a profession, it will prevail because of this passion and commitment. Social work is about finding solutions and harnessing strengths. We have faced incredible challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Social work does not stop because of this, it has to continue to respond to challenges locally, regionally, nationally and internationally! This is where the social work teaching partnership is so important, bringing together the collective passion, commitment and strengths of all its partners to improve social work as a profession. I am truly proud to have been a part of this.


My career journey is now about to take another change, moving into social work education. I hope that I can pass on my passion and love for the role to social work students as they begin their journey into the profession. Advice I would give to social work students or to those contemplating social work as a career…. Social work is not an easy career choice, that is certain. There will be challenges, hard decisions at times and it seems to come as second nature as a social worker to question oneself so much! However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it means we care and want to do the best job we can. There will be lots of times when it feels we are not getting it right or we don’t have the resources to support people in the way we want. However, look closely and it can be seen that social workers are working miracles every day, showing up and trying to support people to make their lives better, going the extra mile, even to the detriment of their own lives at times. Social workers go about their jobs daily making the world a better place, making a difference even when we don’t feel like it and its important to hold on to that.

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