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Blog: SWU General Secretary John McGowan on how social workers can harness different resources to thrive in the workplace and introduces the BEYOND framework

The ‘Social Worker Wellbeing and Working Conditions: Good Practice Toolkit’ is continued evidence of the commitment of BASW & SWU to create positive working conditions for Social Workers, but we need more than just a toolkit to thrive in social work’.

Over the past two years Dr Jermaine Ravalier and colleagues from Bath Spa University have worked with BASW and SWU to conduct two of the largest surveys of social worker wellbeing and working conditions in the UK (Ravalier, 2019; Ravalier et al., 2020) which together had over 5000 respondents.

Using a methodology that had been used with other public sector professionals, the research identified where problems in working conditions impact negatively on social worker stress and wellbeing and thus created the development of a toolkit to assist social workers.

Presenting key elements of the BASW/SWU/Bath Spa University working conditions and wellbeing toolkit and illustrating how it can be used through employer-based examples will be part of a forthcoming BASW/SWU/Bath Spa University webinar. The online session will also explore how social workers, supervisors, managers and organisational leaders can use the resources to make real differences in the workplace.

You can find out more about the Creating Better Working Conditions for Social Work: using the BASW/SWU working conditions and wellbeing toolkit in your organisation webinar here.

Of course, we cannot do this alone with just a toolkit and webinar. This is where commonality comes into the picture, partly in terms of colleagueship and camaraderie at a team level, but especially at a national level – hence the importance of SWU and BASW in the UK and equivalent organisations in other countries.

But, solidarity can be wider than that in terms of trade unionism as part of a national and international drive towards better working conditions and more worker-friendly workplaces – hence the importance of SWU offering quality advice and representation if requested from the membership.

Another framework for distilling some of the key issues we need to be aware of – and engage with – if thriving in social work is to stand any chance of being a reality in such highly pressurised circumstances is the BEYOND acronym, from Thompson, N. and McGowan, J. (2020).

Best practice

‘Satisficing’ is the technical term for aiming simply for ‘good enough’, rather than going for the best outcomes possible. The term is made up of satisfactory and sacrificing. Once we reach a satisfactory level, we sacrifice doing even better. One of the features of professionalism is that we aim for optimal results, best practice, rather than satisfactory practice. Being committed to best practice will stand us in good stead for thriving.

Empowerment

If we are to be serious about thriving, not just surviving, then we need to do more than pay lip service to the concept of empowerment. It is about making sure that our actions not only contribute to the empowerment of others, but also do not play a part in disempowering ourselves. Power is a key theme in social life in general and in social work in particular. Making sure that it is being used positively and ethically is therefore essential.

Yes saying

This does not mean saying yes to too much work! It is a deeper matter than that. The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work we mentioned earlier, distinguished between yes-saying and nay-saying attitudes to life. The former is positive and affirming, while the latter is negative and self-defeating. As we shall see, excessive pressure tends to generate negativity, defeatism and cynicism. These have no place in any genuine commitment to thriving.

One for all and all for one

We have already emphasized the importance of solidarity for surviving, but it is also essential for thriving. Effective teamwork, skilled partnership working and a collective approach to challenges faced are all core elements of getting the best results. Giving and receiving support, making sure we communicate effectively and being empathic towards others are not optional extras if thriving is to be our aim.

Never-ending learning

Sadly, many people see continuous professional development as a bureaucratic matter of keeping professional registration bodies off their back. If we are genuinely to thrive, we need to get beyond that and embrace the idea that we need to be well tuned in to learning opportunities and prepared to take advantage of them as far as possible. We need to move from a passive approach to learning to a more active, self-directed one.

Determination to succeed

Resilience is understandably an important concept in social work (albeit misused at times), and it is especially important when it comes to being determined to succeed. This is not about blind ambition, but rather a recognition that thriving depends in large part on being able to press on and do our best, despite the many discouragements, obstacles and setbacks we are likely to face, to bounce back when we encounter adversity.

Further reading:

Ravalier, J. M. (2019) ‘Psych-Social Working Conditions and Stress in UK Social Workers’, British Journal of Social Work

Thompson, N. and McGowan, J. (2020) How to Survive in Social Work, Wrexham, Avenue Media Solutions.