Today is World Social Work Day, and the theme we are celebrating with our social work colleagues across the world this year is ‘Promoting the Importance of Human Relationships’; which for me forms the very heart of our vocation as social workers.
I say ‘heart’ because most social workers I know, myself included undertake our work with our hearts as much as with our heads every day in life; and it’s usually both which led us into this career and keeps us here! We care about each other, our families, our children and our communities and we want to support and empower them to deal with the arduous challenges brought about by the multiple levels of poverty and deprivation they have to endure here in the North East of Glasgow and elsewhere.
Never before can I think of a time when relationship based practice has been more important for this reason, as we strive to support each other as social workers, health, police, education and third sector colleagues and human beings in these testing times of austerity and extremism in order to support our communities, children and families who require our services.
Neither is there any doubt in my mind, that in the many years I have been a frontline social worker and team leader in the North East of Glasgow; the most effective interventions I have been part of or witnessed have been those where there is a meaningful and trusted relationship established between the families, individuals and their social workers. This is where real change can and does happen.
I also know this from personal experience. When people feel valued, believed in, listened to and supported, the power of this cannot be underestimated in terms of effecting change in their lives. When we empower families to support each other and use strength-based and family-based interventions in our work; families can thrive and find solutions themselves; and when this is occurs, the outcomes are the best they can be for those children and their families and our work is done.
These outcomes however, can only happen when as social workers we feel the same value professionally. Due to the often hidden and unseen nature of our profession to the public, this can be demanding as our work is not without its challenges both emotionally and practically and we very often are a resource within ourselves; this can at times be relentless and weigh heavily on our social consciences. We also regularly have to defend our public image, while we are often vilified and misunderstood in the media; and there is little recognition of the volume of excellent work which takes place every day.
So today is a day to recognise just that! Despite all the challenges described, we prevail day in and day out, and stand up for each other and our profession. We continue to play a key role in the heart of families and communities, covertly yes… but because we value the importance of human relationships and our professional role in promoting them, while at the same time respecting people’s dignity. Every day I have the privilege of seeing human connections which change lives. I also live within the community where I work, and again this work is very evident to me from that perspective. With changes to our service delivery of late, we also have even more connections to the local community and local services within the third sector, which is undoubtedly the way forward in terms of building community capacity and connectedness.
Emeritus Professor of Social Work David Howe, at the University of East Anglia, describes how unique to our profession as social workers we bring our most precious of commodities, our “emotional labour” into our work every day – and that is because our practice is predicated upon promoting and sustaining relationships with each other and the people and communities we serve.
Today, while I know you all will be thinking about all the people you support and how to promote the importance of these relationships, I would also like us to think about ourselves in that equation. As social workers we are also human beings, and when we think about what ‘Promoting the Importance of Human Relationships’ means, we should also think about what this means for each of us individually as social workers too. Central to this is that we need to look after ourselves and each other and value the importance of our own self-care.
In our profession the very traumatic nature of what we encounter and the continual exposure to such trauma in the lives of others, can be relentless and tough to deal with. If we don’t look after ourselves and model this for families, and our staff – especially those who are newly qualified and indeed for the benefit of our own health and wellbeing and that of our own families, then we are failing ourselves and our profession.
There are lots of ways of doing this, and self-care and resilience programmes are now more and more integral at the forefront of practice. One of the new Scottish Social Work Standards (SSSC) standards which newly qualified social workers are having to evidence as part of the new pilot probation year, is the need to demonstrate ‘a commitment to the wellness of self and others’…. and will hopefully enshrine the importance of this for all of us. In the my local area, there are lots of initiatives for us to promote self-care and the importance of looking after ourselves e.g. healthy working lives programmes, and across the country there is clearly a movement towards better self-care within social work in general, which is to be welcomed. CELCIS – and other learning institutes - are also now regularly hosting training and development sessions with a focus on relationship based work, and promoting professional resilience for social workers and ongoing learning and development is very obviously another mechanism for preserving our professional identity and wellness.
So on this day, it is lovely to be able to celebrate our profession with others in a positive light – and to stop and reflect on ourselves and our self-care for a moment, because we are all worth it. Social workers do so much hidden, good work for others, and while I would like to use this opportunity to acknowledge this today, I would like to encourage my social work kin to look after themselves as much as they do the people they work with.
As David Howe (2014) points out in “The Compleat Social Worker”:
“Hope and optimism, the idea that things can get better, gets most of us, including ourselves as social workers, through the day even when we face uncertainty, set-backs and muddle. To give up on hope and optimism would take away so many reasons for living, so many reasons for doing what we do as social workers….the only way to overcome the cruelty of this vital optimism is to be reflective, to be critically reflexive, to be aware and to be realistic …with good supervision, group support, team togetherness, shared reflection pauses for breathe, an emotionally intelligent department…practitioners have a chance to sustain what they do …and why they do it.”