Harry Stevenson: Take pride in social work

Social worker Michelle Sherlock in Edinburgh's Muirhouse area. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Social worker Michelle Sherlock in Edinburgh's Muirhouse area. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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AT times newspapers and magazines look for different people to talk about their work, a sort of “a day in the life of…” type feature. But, a day in the life of a social worker? I don’t know where you would begin.

I can tell you about a day. I can tell you about another day. I could even tell you about a third day. None would be the same. And none should be the same.

I am often asked “what do social workers do?” The closest I can come to an honest, succinct answer is to simply state that we help people who are in crisis to get their lives back on track. Whether they have mental health issues, are elderly and require care, have just left prison, are not being looked after by their parents, the list goes on.

Social workers are people dealing with people. That means nothing about the job is typical or repetitive, because people are all different. They cope with things differently, are affected by things differently and have a perspective shaped by all their experiences in life. You can apply professionalism, experience and training to that, but you can’t apply a formula. Nothing in social work is typical.

Yet, there is one thing that social workers do every day. Every day they take decisions about other people’s lives: decisions to help people and those affected by them out of crisis. Those are not easy decisions, either to take or to arrive at.

Deciding to remove someone’s liberty because they are mentally ill and may cause themselves or someone else harm is not a decision anyone can take lightly.

Arriving at the right package of support for an adult with learning disabilities which reflects their own views and gives them the support they need and the freedom they want, is a tricky thing to get right – particularly when their nearest relatives do not agree.

Every situation is complex because it is about someone’s life. There is no flow-chart to follow, there isn’t even a right or wrong when it comes to people’s lives; it’s about the right judgment at the time, which needs to be reviewed and changed as people’s lives and needs change.

It’s not an easy job to do; it’s not a job you finish. It can be lonely and hugely challenging. It is really hard to make a decision that can affect someone for the rest of their life, no matter what that decision is. It’s a great responsibility to take on.

Social workers can be the butt of jokes or negative stereotypes. I can understand why social workers are concerned about our reputation, but we need to be proud of our profession – and society needs to be proud of us.

What would happen if we didn’t have social workers?

What would happen to the chaotic family whose children are never at school? Would the parents face court over their child’s truancy? Who would be there to find out that the dad and mum can’t read or write and can’t help the kids with their homework? Who would know that the mum has mental health issues and that the children stay off to look after her?

Who would know that the children sometimes don’t have clothes to go to school and get picked on for how they look and don’t want to go? Who would recognise they are hungry, which is why they steal food from the school dining room? Who would know any of that?

If a social worker was there they could sort out a grant to buy a washing machine; speak to the school about the situation and get some extra help; access adult education classes for the parents; get some counselling for the mum; sit down with the family and talk about how they could help each other or get some support.

All these things would help that family lead the life they want to and prevent things from getting worse.

However, it’s not always easy to support people. It’s not easy telling parents they are neglecting their children. It’s not easy getting parents to understand what neglect is, 
if that’s all they have ever known and they feel life is hopeless.

None of it is easy and none of it is typical, but all of it is crucial. Let’s celebrate the part social workers play in our society and let’s show compassion in our communities.

Social Work cannot do it alone.

• Harry Stevenson is president of Social Work Scotland www.socialworkscotland.org

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