Restoring the essence: the role of social work in changing times.

Tuesday coming, the 19th of March is World Social Work Day.

I have spent a lot of my life surrounded by social workers both in terms of being colleagues of them, working alongside them, and even sharing office space with them. But I have also been very aware of the role of social work through relatives and family connections who were and are social workers. It is a profession, therefore, with which I am very familiar and for which I have over the years developed a deep respect, no less so than when I trained hundreds of social workers in Self-directed Support legislation, around issues such as grief and loss, and adult protection.

I am saying all this because I want to evidence a regard for a role and a profession which I feel to be increasingly marginalised and ignored and one which I fear may be losing sight of its essence and energy. I was sharing some of these reflections the other day with a social worker friend who had just retired after decades of service and whose reflections and insights challenged me a great deal.

The international description of World Social Work Day states that it is :

” a celebration that aims to highlight the achievements of social work, to raise the visibility of social services for the future of societies, and to defend social justice and human rights.”

It goes further and points out for this year’s theme:

“World Social Work Day …is rooted in the Global Agenda and emphasises the need for social workers to adopt innovative, community-led approaches that are grounded in indigenous wisdom and harmonious coexistence with nature.”

Social work happens the world over and whilst there may be cultural and geographic distinctions, the essence or core of the profession is largely similar regardless of location. For me a social worker has always been the person who works alongside an individual, community, or group to help them find solutions to their problems and challenges. They are about enabling people to find the resource and energy, the route and strength to empower them to thrive, and achieve their full potential. Regardless of the age of the supported person, social work is grounded in an advocacy for the person at risk of rejection and discrimination. It is a profession steeped in ethical and moral principles with a concern for those marginalised, ignored and at risk. It is a role which literally defends, intervenes to ensure safety, and directs toward independence, self-control and personal autonomy. Knowledge of law, awareness of policy, ability to manage systems are all social work skills directed to enabling the supported person to take control, be autonomous and live as independently as they can. This is all about the maximising of human potential.

The Global Definition of Social Work from the International Federation of Social Workers expresses it well:

“Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work.”

My social work friend and I reflected on the passionate originality and strength of the Social Work Scotland Act when it appeared in 1968 – which whilst I was a babe in arms – in the years after I began to appreciate was a dramatic game-changer in the world of social work in this country. It posited a very different approach to social work which attempted to change the traditional power dynamics of the era. It grounded in law the commitment to provide a community based social work service which ijn the words of a recent report was:

‘focused on providing early help, working in partnership with the communities served, and prepared and empowered to act to protect the vulnerable and those in crisis.’

My friend and I reflected on the extent to which the social work profession in Scotland was reflective of the original intent. Now straight off the bat I am not one of those sideline commentators who consider that social work has sold the pass and has lost its integrity, but it is difficult to ignore the reality that policy, political and legislative changes have altered the nature of social work over the years. Chief amongst them was the Community Care Act and the introduction of the concept of care management which to my friend, “turned us into bean counters, door blockers and system protectors.”

This change has been described in the following terms:

‘This shifted the onus from social workers as therapeutic resources towards practitioners as navigators of an increasingly complex landscape in which their professional values, methods and identity were eroded. Inevitably, social workers looked for areas within an ever more bureaucratic workplace to retain identity and purpose by trying to steer courses between policy intention, management systems and professional judgement.’ (see 3. Historical context – National Care Service – social work: contextual paper – ( )

So it was perhaps not surprising when the Self-directed Support Act (SDS) was introduced in 2013 with its emphasis on enabling the supported person to identify what would enable them to live to the fullest rather than what they needed, its principles of independent living, its emphasis on control, choice, autonomy and dignity – that virtually all the social workers I met and trained in the Act spoke about it in terms of a return to core values and about being what they had entered the profession to do in the first place, i.e. to be an advocate for those who needed a voice and to enable people to fulfil their individual potential and live their lives as they wanted and needed to.

Derek Feeley’s report and the work of Social Work Scotland in its numerous reports have well and truly described the ‘implementation gap’ between legislative aspiration around SDS and the on the ground reality, but chief amongst them must surely be the frustration and disappointment of the social work profession that the management of cases, the supervision of budgets, the emphasis on resource constraint and needs assessment has remained dominant and prevented a return to the essence of social work.

And in these last few weeks when the hidden crisis and breakdown of the social care system in Scotland has become ever more apparent to me, I cannot help but think how far that essence of advocacy and human rights protection that social work once enshrined seems to have become even more remote.

When I sit and hear as I have this last week of social workers in one authority visiting service users who have had packages of care and support lasting 45 minutes to inform them that after a ‘review’ that their care would be delivered in 15 minute visits (to include getting up, being bathed, and having a meal prepared) then I cannot but feel that the essence of social work is slipping away.

When I hear a social worker in another authority stating that a body wash should replace a shower (to save time); and that a local day service needs to shut because of resource constraints, I sense a slipping away of social work.

When I listen to the family of a man with a significant neurological condition, who had been used to four visits a day to support them, now being reduced to two, and the social worker saying that the family will just have to help out more – I see the essence of social work slipping away.

Now lest you suggest these are exceptions to the rule then sadly I would contend they are not rather they are the tip of the iceberg.

Undeniably I know that there are hundreds of women and men who are fantastic passionate social workers, and I know when I speak to them, how massively frustrated they are by the fiscal and managerial shackles they have to operate within. Every day they try their best to hold back a soulless system which is increasingly inhumane and disrespectful of the dignity and human rights of some of our most vulnerable citizens. Every day they voice their despair to managers and leaders for it to be ignored and set aside.

My old retired social worker friend remarked to me that with an increasingly overt emphasis on clinical care and assessment focussed on making sure people are safe and well but not much more, that the uniqueness of social work (and I would add social care) is being increasingly crowded out and pushed to the edge. The social, community dynamic of social work, which used to see connection and neighbourhood, community and relationships as intrinsic to wellbeing is being sacrificed by the bean counters and political expedients in our towns and villages. Life is more than maintenance.

I hope against hope that on this year’s World Social Work Day the strong voice of social work advocacy, the shout of defending the human rights of all, and the proclamation of the worth and dignity of the least is heard again in loud calls to change and challenge actions which are happening up and down Scotland today.

Someone a bit like Anna Wigeon’s social worker:

by Anna Wigeon

The study, work placements and exams are all done,
And now it is the hour for the clients to come.

Practice process explained and values declared,
Those attending may feel it’s now easier to share.

Hurting hearts, tell unique tales and words,  about need,
Words, they hope,  will be heard. ‘Loss’ is oft a core seed.                    

Those who want  to feel ”whole’ and who yearn to ‘belong’.
The rich gent and poor rogue, might recite common song’.

What change might occur, if a skilled helping hand,
Could give timely support to assist them to stand.

Many stories depicting a myriad of need.
Common circumstance  bringing so many to heed.

The homeless, sleeping on concrete sheets while their wits,
Go to waste and wither down the cracks in the streets.

Then there are those who just want to ‘Be‘.  Be free of,
Societal labelling and that online melee.

No-one’s is excluded from these hardest of roads,
Caused by abuse, violence; into slavery sold?

Thank-you for caring; choosing a social work role,
For giving  solace to those needing consoled.

Your compassion; open mind towards those in ‘chains’,
For your seeing anew and believing in change.

As you give of yourself and your social work skills,
Remember Self-Care and your support team’s good will.

And barring emergency……do try to leave at a reasonable hour!’

From Poems by and for Social Workers – Scottish Poetry Library

Donald Macaskill

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash