Social workers are crucial to bringing different sources of support together to ensure families and carers have their rights and dignity protected.
However, too often the social work contribution in integrated settings lacks investment and leadership.
Social Care Today spoke with Gerry Nosowska, chair of the British Association of Social Worker (BASW), about the future of social work, post-Brexit and beyond.
How has social work changed in the last 10 years?
There’s been major growth in the profession as a whole, we now have protected titles and a lot of social workers have degrees and masters degrees. And we’ve started working more closely with people who have lived experience of care and support, developing co-production and focusing on multi-agency work.
Unfortunately, we are also working with really reduced resources, which is a universal issue for all public services, not just social work. The problem is, social workers have got really good at coping with the limited resources so in children’s social work, for example, the focus is more on protection when really we would rather focus on prevention.
Is it hard to recruit and retain social workers?
In theory, it’s not, but in practice it is.
BASW conducted a survey, Working Conditions and Wellbeing, that found social workers struggle from very high levels of stress due to their workloads and the lack of resources.
A lot of people said they were happy with their colleagues and managers, but more than 40% said they intended to leave the profession entirely, which is upsetting to hear because we put a lot of work and heart into training people and we want them to stay.
If we treat social workers well then they will stay but they need enough resources to feel like they are able to actually make a difference, as well as support from colleagues and management. And the right working environment, somewhere to park, somewhere to eat there lunch, somewhere they can sit for a bit and reflect.
What needs to be done to improve working conditions for social workers going forward?
The BASW survey also found that, compared to the UK average, working conditions for social workers were worse than 90%-95% of other employees in both public and private sector occupations.
We need to focus on improving the day-to-day working conditions for social workers, with simple things like parking. We want to encourage an open workplace where we look after each other the same way we look after the people we support.
Over the years we’ve had lots of newly qualified social workers come through, which is brilliant but they need support and training. We don’t want to put too much work on them and want to give them time to develop, you don’t come straight out of uni ready to be a social worker.
I also think more work needs to be done around the public’s understanding of the importance of social workers and social care.
We all hope that we will live long lives and that means, inevitably, we will all need some kind of care or support in the end. It’s a matter of seeing it social care and social workers as essential.
There are some really difficult areas of social work where the balance of upholding one person’s rights can clash with protecting another’s. But there is so much more to the job. Our priority is protecting people, supporting families and supporting communities, not just stepping in when something has gone wrong.
There will always be people who struggle and there are difficult decisions that need to be made, but where possible we try to make them together. We want people to be able to take charge of their own lives and live well.
Do you think it would be beneficial for schools to have a social worker on staff?
I don’t know much about the evidence around this but I believe it’s something they do in the USA and Germany.
It’s definitely valuable to have social workers in places where they can pick up on the signals that someone is struggling, for example, GP surgeries. So I think it would definitely help to have someone in schools who can recognise when a child is not themself and spot the signs that something might be off.
Teachers and social workers have a lot of crossovers; a lot of educational difficulties that children face have a social dimension to them so having someone on-hand who could offer support on those issues would be invaluable. There would be fewer children struggling at school if we had more preventative resources.
It’s important to mention that social workers who work in integrated environments need special support, so they can maintain their own expertise and don’t feel isolated from the profession.
What are you hoping for from the budget?
There’s a lot of reshuffling going on, which could mean the responsibility for the social care review we have been promised gets transferred to someone else, stalling the conversation again.
According to data from the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), there’s a shortfall of £2.5bn. We really want that shortfall to be filled along with the guarantee of more sustainable funding for the future to ensure everyone who needs support is able to access it.
Wider changes, such as making sure families have enough money to live on would solve a lot of problems. We would really benefit from being able to address issues of poverty and housing. It’s about being able to work more preventatively as working with people who are experiencing crisis.
How could Brexit affect social work?
It is a big area of concern for us. There is already a question mark around the impact of Brexit will have on social care and social work because of the proportion of people in the workforce who come from the EU.
I think the announcement of the points-based system and the wage cut off, in particular, is very worrying because some social workers earn less than that and so do most care workers.
We’re also concerned about maintaining the research and learning exchange between us and the EU and making sure our colleagues across the border of Ireland can get access to the support they need.
The thing is, social workers are interested in building communities and making sure people feel included. Brexit has shown up a division in society and we are worried by the rhetoric that is developing around ‘foreigners’ and the damage it is doing to communities.
We have always been committed to speaking up for people, that is a role that we have to continue to play assertively.
Photo Credit – BASW