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Part of something bigger... professional identity in social work

An all-Ireland study provides an interesting insight into how social workers see themselves

Professional Social Work magazine - 8 December, 2020

A recent all-Ireland study of professional identity among social workers found 71 per cent are happy in their role.

But only 48 per cent consider themselves to be part of a regulated profession.

With 52 per cent of respondents seeing themselves more as employees, the authors of Shaping Social Workers’ Identity believe more work is needed to foster professional identity.

BASW NI worked with the Irish Association of Social Workers, the Northern Ireland Social Care Council and CORU on the report.

Data from 1,691 social workers was gathered via an online questionnaire.

The study found collaboration, values and relationships to be core individual factors. And members of a professional association are most likely to identify as members of a regulated profession – 55 per cent of BASW NI members and 58 per cent of IASW members respectively.

Multiple differences were nevertheless uncovered when social workers were asked how they see themselves in relation to the wider profession, pointing to a need for more research on professional identity.

Generation gap

Significantly, older social workers - those who have been in practice for more than 20 years - are more likely to consider themselves to be part of a regulated profession, with nearly 60 per cent identifying as such. Conversely, nearly two thirds (63 per cent) of newly qualified social workers see themselves as employees.

This is despite protection of title and social work regulation being introduced after older social workers qualified, the authors note.

Social workers in the Republic of Ireland are more likely (55%) to see themselves as part of a regulated profession, whereas the same figure in Northern Ireland think of themselves as employees.

And in Northern Ireland the split widens further: in the Statutory Health and Social Care (HSC) sector 60 per cent of respondents see themselves as employees, but the same figure in the voluntary sector consider themselves to be part of a regulated profession.

There are further perceptual differences - learning disability and mental health social workers in NI are most likely to identify as part of a regulated profession. And where you trained is also significant: 57 per cent of graduates of University College, Cork identify as members of a profession, while the same number who studied at Ulster University identify as employees.  

So why the disparity?

The authors point to differences in how social work degrees are taught.

“While there is evidence of teaching on professional identity in all degree programmes, the emphasis is varied."

Further focus group work is considered necessary to foster professional identity to uncover how and why attitudes develop.

Collaboration and partnership

Significantly, 53 per cent of respondents said they identify more closely with non-social work colleagues within their workplace than other social workers outside their workplace. Just under half (47 per cent) identified strongest with social workers outside their area of practice.

The authors note: “It is perhaps unsurprising given the extent to which respondents highlighted the central importance of working in partnership... that many participants would identify closely with non-social work colleagues with whom they work to support service users.

“While this is welcome, it should, however, be recognised that development of a strong sense of identity across all areas of social work practice will play an important role in enabling the profession to represent itself collectively.”

The single factor most central to professional identity given in the study was ‘empowering service users’ according to a quarter of respondents. The most commonly chosen collective factors were: promoting social work values (86 per cent), and working in partnership with service users (85 per cent).

Negative impacts on professional identity included: bureaucracy (74 per cent), workload pressure (70 per cent), insufficient face-to-face contact with service users (62 per cent), and negative media portrayals (57 per cent).

The authors conclude: “Social work is a profession based on relationships. By affording more time for social workers to engage directly with service users, the human connections and trust which form the foundation of practice will be strengthened.”

David Jones, chair of the BASW International Committee, said: "One of the most interesting findings is that those social workers who are members of their professional body are more likely to have a stronger sense of identity and belonging to a collective profession.

"Both BASW NI and IASW see this as fundamental to building a strong, confident profession"

Read the full report here