What is a social work identity and what do social workers actually do. I’ve never had to consider how I define myself as a social worker or really reflect upon what it is that makes my role different from other allied professionals. When you work in a social work team you have a shared identity, you have a shared work purpose. Whilst there are often other social workers who have specialist interests or additional qualifications, you all share the same foundation in which you draw upon to inform practice.
There is passion and fire in social work teams that drives energy and motivation
Over the years I have always enjoyed working in social work teams, a mixture of local authority and charity. I enjoyed the camaraderie of my colleagues, the difference that each day brought and the small wins that (sometimes) came from intervening in family’s lives. There is passion and fire in social work teams that drives energy and motivation.
As I have moved through my career to a wish to want to work more therapeutically with children and their families, I decided that working in a multi-disciplinary team (MDT) would meet this need. In all of my previous roles the idea of a MDT was a pipedream, a real appreciation that a child’s needs could be met all within one team without the need to refer to other services. Imagine my delight when I interviewed and was offered a role in one!
In my current team there are four disciplines, Social Workers, Child & Adolescent Psychotherapists, Clinical/Counselling Psychologists, Family & Systemic Psychotherapists. We all have generic roles and cases are allocated purely based on availability rather than specialism or training (unless there is a real need). When I first began it was clear that all disciplines had a particular way of approaching clinical work usually based on their training or previous experience. All disciplines have undergone either additional clinical training to complement their initial qualification or have undertaken a doctorate.
What do I bring to the table, what can I do?
When I first began, I can remember feeling out of my depth and unsure if this was the role for me. I can remember thinking ‘what do I bring to the table, what can I do?
The obvious response (I think) for social workers to describe what they do is ‘safeguarding, keeping people safe, assessing, planning, reviewing’. But what does this actually mean, is it as simple as this, a linear process in which there is always a clear aim or goal. As a discipline I think social workers can be self-deprecating and often do not appreciate the experience, skills and knowledge that they have. When I reflect on my own social work training it was very broad and perhaps lacking in specialism. However, social workers learn on the job, they think on their feet and run with whatever is presented. So how do you translate this into what you can do or how you identify alongside other professions.
The anxiety I held was how could I prove my professional worth? It has taken a lot of reflecting through supervision for me to find my place within my team. I don’t feel that this is because it is a difficult or defensive team merely that everyone else has clear and defined roles outlined within their clinical training, I believe that the social work role outside of a safeguarding team can be a grey area but that the experience gained in such settings provides social workers with something truly individual which sometimes cannot be quantified in words.
How can I use my previous experience to inform the work that I do now?
Through this transition period from a social work team to a multi-disciplinary I have had to take a step back to think about what is my identity as a social worker, what do we do well and how can I use my previous experience to inform the work that I do now. My conclusion so far is that the social work identity has the following facets (there clearly will be more!):
- Continuously working in complex and risky situations that more often than not require quick decision making
- Being able to work alongside children, families, adults often in the most difficult of situations
- Often working with conflict, upset and hurt and being able to stay steady enough to think through the situation and formulate what the needs are and what intervention is required
- Working hard to form good working relationships with external professionals in order to create a robust enough plan for a family
- Often being exposed to incredibly difficult and traumatic information or incidents with sometimes little opportunity or time to debrief or process
- Being able to balance decision making between what is required in the ‘’here and now’ but at the same time forward thinking into the future
Safeguarding is a specialism…
I think often that we as social workers take the above for granted and assume that these are skills that other professionals do and feel comfortable with, they are not. Safeguarding is a specialism in itself; I have taken for granted my ability to think quickly, to formulate on my feet, to resolve conflict and to work in crisis. This has enabled me to think outside of the clinic room, it has enabled to me think about the wider picture of the children’s lives that I currently work with, to be holistic, trauma informed and to create care plans that reflect all of their needs rather than just the clinical area my current team works with.
I wanted to write this article to express how proud I am to be a social worker and how proud I am of my social work colleagues across the UK who everyday try their hardest to make positive changes for individuals and families often in incredibly difficult and challenging situations. I believe that there is much more to do in terms of raising the social work profile and identity, I hope that I can use this space to grapple with some of the complex work that social workers do but also to highlight the layers that are involved in ‘just safeguarding’. I am hopeful to begin to explore how social workers can provide themselves as a resource to other services and professionals in the context of offering safeguarding consultation.
By Samantha Lowe, NHS Trust