Home Experiences Public Sector Heroes Building Bridges and Changing Attitudes: Inside The Life of a Social Worker

Building Bridges and Changing Attitudes: Inside The Life of a Social Worker

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By Gwenan Bradshaw


I chose to be a children’s social worker because I believe it’s an important profession. I feel proud to do the job I do and I am motivated every day to change the negative views that people so often have of social workers.

Don’t get me wrong, within social work, there have been a number of heart-breaking tragedies and mistakes that have occurred over the years, but I think this can probably be said for most professions. However, the picture that so many people have of social workers is; we interfere unnecessarily with the lives of people’s children, only care about bureaucratic processes and some even believe we ruin lives by splitting families up. Believe it or not, the last thing we want to do is break up families and our number one priority is to do whatever we can to support people to make positive changes in the lives of the children we work with.

I suppose the media’s portrayal of social workers does not help this, most recently I struggled as I watched Channel 4’s “Kiri”, where viewers saw a social worker abused and tortured at her door step as a result of a decision that she made. It is my view that this drama portrayed the profession in an unrealistic light; it showed a social worker drinking whisky for breakfast, taking her dog everywhere she went (including other people’s homes) and then portrayed her to be someone that made blasé decisions about the safety of a child all based on her personal beliefs. It is these unrealistic dramatisations that support the public’s misconceptions about what we do.

The stigma that’s attached to social work does add an enormous pressure to the work but for me it adds to my drive to make sure I am doing the best work I can do.  This drive goes hand–in-hand with the stress of ensuring that I do it to the best of my ability. This can be both a benefit and a hindrance.

When it comes to mental health and social work, it is impossible to ignore this or get away from it. As social workers, we so often spend our days helping others that we can forget to help ourselves and think about our own well-being. Each day we listen, read and assess a huge variety of very difficult situations; some can be extremely distressing and all are very complex.  We then have to process this in our heads, act on it and ensure we have done everything correctly in our responses. This is on top of whatever else we have going on in our own personal lives. I remember when I was training I was told “you must not take your work home, leave it in the office”. However, in reality, I’m not sure how this is possible. Theoretically, of course I can leave my laptop and paperwork in my locker and go home, but it is my brain that is full of the day’s pressures, asking myself mostly; is that child safe? As well as, do those parents understand what I’ve told them? Did I explain that properly? Have I updated my case notes? Have I finished the several assessments that are due tomorrow? You get the gist. The pressure that comes with walking into somebody’s life is huge and I suppose it’s this pressure that affects my well-being the most.

On top of this pressure are some of the deeply difficult and sometimes simply disturbing things that we witness or have to work with. I’m sitting here moaning about how I can be stressed about my job but I try to count myself lucky.  There is just so much need in society at the moment and sadly I don’t hold the answer to all of this but I wish I could just wave a magic wand. Some of the things I have seen have affected me massively. In home visits I have held it together at the time in an attempt to remain professional and show some strength, but the tears certainly come when I arrive home. However, I would argue that this response is needed as well as healthy.  I use the word healthy because I believe these emotions are completely normal. Showing emotion is not a weakness, and one of the most dangerous things to do is to suppress these emotions. These are real people’s lives, not just a TV drama. It is possible that this is what can lead to social workers so often being signed off sick with stress, as they have not given themselves an opportunity to deal with the depth of emotion they deal with on a daily basis. I am aware that there is the myth that social workers are emotionless aliens, but I do not think for a moment that any social worker is not affected daily by what they witness. I know that within my team and my work place, it is encouraged to reflect with colleagues and talk about these exact things, I’m lucky to have a supportive team of people around me who do this.

I believe that most social workers chose the profession because they care and if they say they don’t care, I’m sure that in itself it is a coping mechanism they use to remain strong. Sometimes a mask is better for someone than to expose the turmoil they feel inside themselves. But sometimes, it is that caring bone in our body that leads to sleepless nights, anxious mornings and stressful weeks. Of course there is the usual organisational pressure, which includes the time frames, deadlines and targets. But then there is the pressure of- “OH MY GOODNESS THESE ARE PEOPLE’S LIVES I BETTER BE MAKING THE RIGHT DECISIONS AND SAYING THE RIGHT THINGS”. The capitals represent the genuine voice that seems to be in my head saying that on most days.

As I mentioned earlier, I have a really supportive team, which enables me to be quite honest and open about all the things I have discussed. I also have a mum with extremely good listening skills who allows me to chat away to her most evenings about my worries, my frustrations and sometimes my successes. There are times when I feel completely overwhelmed and find myself not wanting to talk, let alone be around anyone but over time I have come to realise that that is okay. Sometimes the down time does me wonders and other times I’m desperate for someone to lend me a listening ear and talk through things with me. It is this balance that is (at the moment) working for me and my little brain full of madness.

I’ve learnt a lot during my time studying and being a social worker, and I am still learning every day. I believe that since my social work journey started, I now see the world very differently to how I once saw it. Of course I appreciate hearing about people’s lives and understanding their experiences, but with this still comes the element of shock that I so often have when I am faced with particularly tragic or distressing situations. I now appreciate how vast the level of need and poverty is in the UK, and how much work there is to be done. What strikes me is that we are so often hearing the bleak stories and forgetting the encouraging ones. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were an outlet that only shared the positive things happening all over the world?

There has been a huge shift in attitudes towards mental health recently and every day people are becoming more confident to open up about their own experiences. This is an amazing change and I think if this continues it will help all professions, including social work. Let’s keep on talking about the things that matter most as well as supporting those that need it most.

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