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PSW: 'I found myself idealising my professional years in Sweden'

Swedish social worker Soulmaz Bashirinia had a “culture shock” when she came to England to work six years ago. Attending a global gathering of social workers recently made her reflect on her experiences

Workplace meetings between staff and senior managers occur monthly in Sweden

Some time has passed since I attended a gathering of more than 2,000 social workers from across the globe in Dublin. The great enthusiasm I felt just after the World Conference on Social Work Education and Social Development (SWSD) has faded, but what has remained is a feeling of wanting change.

I did not know much about the world social work event when I first saw the advert in Professional Social Work magazine, except for that a similar conference had taken place in my home country of Sweden in 2012.

That was the year I moved to England for new adventures. Having qualified as a social worker/social pedagogue six years earlier, I felt I had the confidence and experience for what was to come.

Six more years have passed since and attending SWSD made me look back at my experience of being a Swedish social worker in England.

I remember the cultural shock I felt when I first started working in the West Midlands - the pressure social workers were under and the lack of safe spaces to reflect on one’s emotions and feelings. I sensed a feeling of hopelessness among colleagues and being part of the union was not something that seemed to be a solution. Of course, in hindsight I cannot be sure how much of this was my own feelings projected on my colleagues. 

Back in Gothenburg, I had been an active member of the professional union and a workplace union representative. So my initial reaction to what I experienced was to raise the issues with my managers and, when they were not addressed, to become involved in the union. It didn’t take long to realise the structures I had been used to in Sweden were not existing here in England.

I wrote an article about the lack of reflective supervision in England. But the hoops I had to jump through, always having to be careful of what I said and if critical, not mentioning where I worked, left a bad taste for the whole process. I didn’t feel encouraged to voice what I saw, rather that I had to self-censor my views.

This went against what I had learnt about social work. The more I adapted to my new environment the more I found myself idealising my professional years in Sweden. I felt angry and offended by the perceived blaming culture that surrounded me and the lack of space to address the complexity social workers experienced.

The key feature of social work, building trusting, supporting and challenging relationships with families, felt very difficult when one didn’t have enough time or capacity. At the same time everybody was tired of hearing any sentences starting with: “In Sweden social workers would...” It became an in-joke, Sweden the perfect place for social workers. Why didn’t we all move there?

I met Swedish colleagues at SWSD and they reminded me of the challenges social workers face in Sweden. I told them that what I missed the most were the monthly workplace meetings between staff and the senior management team. The agenda is set by the staff and could include trivial things like what coffee brand to order, a bad smell in the kitchen, staff training and high caseloads. There was a clear route that if actions were not addressed by the employer, workers could raise this with the union.

What I miss the most with these meetings, however boring and trivial they were, was that one felt valued and listened to. Small issues mattered and we were being heard. Small things matter for the families that we work with, too. I strongly believe that whatever we experience as social workers is mirrored in how we work with families. If we feel valued, we will value the families we work with. Having the forum was not fully appreciated and it was taken for granted in Sweden. But it was showing that there is a space to make our voices heard.

Perhaps the lack of opportunity to reflect on how we feel, the lack of space for feeling that we matter and are important, is making us feeling powerless. Perhaps the powerlessness the families we work with is projected on us. And maybe this is why we feel hopeless and don’t believe there is anything that we do to make a difference. I wonder if this is one of the reasons so few social workers speak up about poverty, about inequality and challenges that families face.

Social policy and politics had been something I have always felt passionate about and it was one of the reasons for me joining the profession. I believe that as social workers we are not only working with families to support them in their everyday life but also to voice any challenges and problems that they face. Social workers can be advocating on family’s behalf when they cannot do so themselves and highlight socio-political issues that we see in practice.

SWSD reminded me that we as a profession are very powerful. BASW and the Social Workers Union is our voice. I recently joined BASW’s working group against poverty. There are so many stories to be told. There are so many ways to engage.

Simplistic? Maybe. But the most powerful message I take with me from SWSD was the most simple one from child welfare activist Cindy Blackstock: “Never fall in love with your title or your job. Only fall in love with the children - those are the only people you should give up the other two for.”

Not being able to voice difficult experiences working in a local authority felt as if I was no longer representing families, but the organisation. But are we really protecting organisations by not addressing real issues from the root or are we ultimately slowly dismantling our own professional identity?

Soulmaz Bashirinia has been a social worker for 12 years in Sweden and England where she is currently a service manager for a local authority and associate director for Treehouse International

Find out what happened when one social worker challenged the system in October’s Professional Social Work magazine