Whenever we talk to social workers about why they do what they do, the desire to make a difference to people’s lives, to help them reach their goals and realise their potential comes up again and again. Practitioners see it as a caring profession where kindness, patience and empathy are vital.
And yet, when you look at the careers pages, it’s easy to get carried away with lists of eligibility criteria – rather like Mr Darcy describing a ‘really accomplished’ woman in Pride and Prejudice. It’s hard to imagine applicants combining the emotional resilience, intellectual aptitude, professional capabilities and targeted work experience that will make them a successful candidate.
Of course intellectual aptitude is important – there’s theory, research and legislation to take on board. Social workers need to demonstrate intuition and logic in decision-making, and understand that not all those decisions will be well-received, or have welcome outcomes.
And yes, life as a social worker is busy. Caseloads are challenging, CPD distracts us, and sometimes we have no choice but to spend our time recording when we’d rather than doing. Those things are certainly important, but the danger is that we forget what’s really effective – we forget to be kind, to be warm, to smile.
Small things can literally change lives
Social work can have a profoundly positive impact, and we should celebrate that today of all days. Things that seem small - and certainly don’t rely on a stellar academic history - can literally change the lives of the people around us. Jenny Molloy, care leaver and writer recalls acts of kindness in an otherwise chaotic and confusing childhood. She remembers these incidents shining through like light in a dark world: When she was ill and an adult took the time to make her a hot Ribena: Having sugary doughnuts as an after school snack. These were milestone events for Malloy, and helped her set the scene for adulthood.
When we look after each other, we all do better
Sadly, we’re all familiar with examples where things have not gone so well for social workers. In a profession where we may expect the most accomplished, experienced practitioners to be the most generous and considerate, it’s not always the case. These leaders are missing a trick. If they remember to act with kindness and generosity, they’ll raise the level of behaviour around them, and motivate people to put their own values into action. We’ve seen this in action recently – Marcus Rashford’s noisy intervention with school meals – and seeing people modelling the behaviour of people they like and respect makes it clear just how contagious kindness can be.
The resilience trap
Social work can be challenging at the best of times, and the past year certainly hasn’t been that. Perhaps we conclude that emotional resilience is more crucial than ever – that we need to recover quickly and be tough. On the other hand, if we don’t bounce back, we somehow fail, giving in to weakness and human fallibility.
Here’s where kindness comes in – yet again – but this time self-directed. It’s not weak to acknowledge that we’re human, that we rely on good support networks, and need to muster the confidence to ask for help.
Being kind to ourselves includes looking for good points, not just flaws, and showing ourselves the empathy, acceptance and tolerance we’d want for the people around us.
Being a social worker isn’t easy. It can be challenging and frustrating, and having to take responsibility for what you do can be daunting. It’s important to stay calm, share your smile and always be kind – even during the most difficult times. And remember that when kindness is shared, it grows and that’s how the small things we do every day can change lives.