Hard graft behind social work scenes takes toll

Social work covers a number of areas, including support work with children. Picture: Stock image
Social work covers a number of areas, including support work with children. Picture: Stock image
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TIME to say thank you to all our key leaders, says Harry Stevenson.

There are people in this world that we take for granted and who need to be recognised once in a while for the extraordinary work they do.

Christmas is a good time to do it. Children take gifts to teachers, posties get a wee envelope back through the letter box and tubs of chocolates adorn office kitchens all over the country.

A card or a gift is nice, but sometimes it needs a different approach.

In social work, we do a lot of work behind the scenes. Most people don’t come into contact with our services and the role of our staff can be misunderstood or not even thought about. Our remit is vast: we support people with disabilities, mental health issues and addiction problems; we support people who have offended; we support children and adults and older people; we support families and communities. We have very specialised and highly trained people in our workforce who go out day after day and make a difference to people’s lives.

And to make all that happen: to make sure people get the services they need, to make sure there are staff where they are needed and to make sure the money is in the right places, we need managers.

Nobody likes the term manager but we are talking about key leaders in social work. It doesn’t sound exciting. It doesn’t put a picture in our head the way “teacher” or “doctor” might. The term is almost synonymous with David Brent in the 1990s series The Office, and that is not a good image.

I’m not talking, in this context, of senior managers: directors and chief executives. I’m talking about the tier below: the middle and frontline managers. These are the people who take the strategy and policy directions from above and translate them into practice at the front line. The people who make things work, who don’t often have a profile outside of the work they do, the people who make difficult and critical decisions. The people who make things happen.

It’s not an easy job. Things come at you from all angles.

Firstly, you have to manage frontline staff. These are staff who are dealing with rising demand of more and more people who need support. They are also dealing with increased expectation from politicians, media, the public and people who receive support themselves about what we can deliver. Frontline staff are under enormous pressure to do lots of things, to do the right things and to do them well.

Managing and leading staff is a demanding role, no matter the social work context. The pressures of building relationships and trust with people who don’t always welcome input from a social worker, yet are vulnerable and at risk; having to make decisions about restricting the liberty of people with mental health issues who might be at risk of harming themselves or others. It can take its toll. This type of work is rewarding, but it is at times hard work for managers to make sure they support staff, advise them and help them to reflect on the impact they are making.

Then there is new legislation to be interpreted, new policies to be reviewed and new methods of practice to be implemented. At the moment, managers are working with the uncertainty of the legislation on integrating services with health, allowing people to direct their own support, extending care to children up until the age of 21, and that is to name but a few. And it doesn’t stop: there’s the redesign of community justice, the introduction of a new duty of candour for care workers and legislation to create an offence of “wilful neglect”.

Middle and frontline managers have to make these policies and laws a reality. They need to train staff, monitor performance, manage risk and report on progress and issues to make sure they are making the difference they need to for the people they support.

Then there are the demands for information: how many of this, how much of that, how long for this and can we have more of that? It can feel a bit like being pulled in all directions. Yet despite all this, they do a brilliant job. They might not have the profile of a director or of a frontline worker, but they keep our services moving and adapting and delivering for the people who need our support.

I want to recognise that and say thank you.

• Harry Stevenson is the President of Social Work Scotland

www.socialworkscotland.org

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