Over many years I have been working on what it means to be a social worker. This blog originally began over 10 years ago as I was endeavouring to solve that particular question. It is now being over 20 years since I graduated from University I can remember at the time being excited about my new profession and what it meant to me personally and professionally. I remember I wanted to learn as much as I could, I want to know how effective I can be as a social worker. I began with an ideal, the belief that I needed to work on two particular constructs, they being nonjudgemental and value free. It didn't take me long to realise that it was not possible to be either of those, but it was possible to understand where our judgements interfered with the work that we do and to realise that I had no idea as to what my values were.
There have always been ethical issues in relation to the work that I do in fact, it is fair to say that there are many ethical issues which occur sometimes on a daily basis. This can be determined by the way, we thank about a client based on how the addressed their weight their employment nonemployment and even the type of car they may drive. The thoughts I entertained in relation to any of these ideas were judgements I was making about these people and in some cases would affect the way I chose to work with them.
For many years I worked for an Employment Assistance Provider (EAP) where most of my clients were middle-class, they on the whole appeared to have relationship problems and on occasions were finding life hard. I don't think there was ever an occasion where I simply chose not to work with them or I dismissed the particular issues, but I did find them tiring and mundane and wondered why they were using a service which was provided to them by their employer and not paying for it themselves when they could afford to do so.
I've never been concerned about the quality of my work, particularly in the latter years after I'd been able to develop my own form of therapeutic practice. I had become more confident as the years progressed in the way I thought about my practice. I can remember when I first began counselling how difficult it was to focus on the client and try to remember what is an appropriate question to ask based on what the client is saying. This was often difficult because I wasn't listening to the client. I was too busy focusing on the next question. I soon learnt that if I relaxed and knew that the question would just come to me I would find the process more helpful for the client. This proved to be the case and it certainly dispensed with the anxiety which came from having to worry about what question to ask.
The question that has remained with me over the years. Once I have been able to sort out who I was as a therapeutic counsellor relates to who I was and have been as a social work. I have often thought that by doing one I was automatically doing the other. I am very good at asking questions, delving into the depths of a person's experiences, but is that enough if we want to be a good social worker? I have a certain skill set, tools if you like, which I can inject into the session and help the client come to realisations which are new and challenging. But again, does that make me a good social worker? These are tools that anyone can acquire regardless of the training and can appear to be significant and unique to a particular profession, but they are still tools. Anyone, using these tools could be a counsellor, but does that make them a social worker?
The question that concerns me is when are we not a social worker? If I am a mechanic I am a mechanic as long as I'm fixing something mechanical. As a mechanic I go home, I speak to my partner, I play with the kids. I'm not necessarily a mechanic while at home, unless I am fixing something. So am I a social worker when I am in front of the client and something else when I am at home? So as a social worker someone who just has a set of tools and uses them for the purpose of interpersonal discovery? If a mechanic makes a mistake while fixing a customer's car who holds him responsible for that mistake? If the mistake is fatal, the customer can hold the mechanic accountable for the damage caused by his or her mistake. Each of us then are obligated to ensure that all our work leaves the customer or client safe.
Social work is a value laden profession, unlike any other profession. There are a set of values which inherently determine how a social worker should conduct his or her practice. The question that this tends to create is kind of like the question I posed earlier which is when are we not "practising"? Speaking from a position of personal knowledge, I know that in is possible to be dragged before the social work ethics committee based on a private text message. Putting this personal experience aside, I have always believed that our behaviour, under all circumstances, should reflect who we are professionally. My personal experience validates my long held view.
Who, in the public, are aware of the standards expected of a practising social work? Do people believe that those standards should be enacted at all times and under all circumstances? I am unable to say if I know the answers to any of these questions, what I can do is make assumptions about how people may think social workers should behave. What I hear from clients is probably an indicator as to the standard expected from social workers.
The people I work with want to be heard and understood. That they are not heard and not understood indicates that the social worker is failing to perform a primary function of any social worker, and that is to engage with the client so that a relationship can be established which benefits those involved. Regardless of the type of work that a social worker engages in, this is an integral part of being an effective social work. Failing at this basic level is an indicator that the social worker should not be doing social work or is poorly supervised and hasn't been corrected in relation to client engagement. You will never be an effective social worker if the people you're working with don't like working with you.
There are two important elements in relation to the commitment and aims of social work as defined in the Australian Association of Social Work "Code of Ethics." "Working with and supporting people to achieve the best possible levels of personal and social well-being, working to address and redress inequity and injustice affecting the lives of clients, client groups and socially disadvantaged." p7
It is clear as to what our purpose is and how we should be working with our clients and beyond that how we should be behaving in the general community.
In answer to the question when are we not a social worker, the answer is simple. There is not a time when we should not be practising the principles which inform the work we do. We can't advocate for justice and fairness, when we are not just and fair in our personal lives. It is a contradiction to have one set of values for one aspect of our lives and another set of principles in other parts of our lives. Being a social worker is just about "being".