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Social workers are a bit like artists

Social workers are creative and sensitive beings, attributes that need to be protected to flourish, says Claire Ogborn

Claire Brooks
Claire Ogborn

The truth about social work is that it will force you to step out into what is uncomfortable and to create within yourself new ways to be brave.

We are the artists that endlessly labour and pour over the details of our work, who are constantly frustrated and who draft and redraft, who set colour to the canvases of people’s lives. We use our creative spirits to reflect constantly, but our creativity leaves us vulnerable and what happens when our workloads are such that our creativity is crushed? I would argue it produces process driven, automatic and risk adverse social work. I would argue that when workloads become unsustainable, there is little space left for creativity.

A high percentage of people enter this career because either they or someone they love has experienced a real-life situation which has driven them to want to make a difference. I can guarantee you that if I had asked you when you were six years old what you wanted to be when you were older, it’s highly unlikely that ‘social worker’ was top of your list. I recently spoke to nurses on a cancer ward for children and found many working on the ward had themselves been patients. They chose to step back into the place where they were at their most vulnerable, to create something meaningful for children as well as for themselves. Likewise with many entering social work. 

I find it hard to believe that anyone who chooses to pursue a career in social work is not a person who enjoys being creative, who likes to step into utter mess and chaos and find a way through, often in the face of generational patterns of abuse and dysfunction. Social work is not a clear-cut science, it does not sit along the lines of a medical model, it is the greyness, the uncertainty, it is the inexact, the messiness of the artist spreading colour across a canvas.

I believe that some of the most creative souls are also those who wrestle with the deepest frustrations. I am sure, like me, you can name many famous people who have been highly creative yet have also suffered greatly with their own mental health. They have at their best produced incredible works of art, music, or writing, yet have equally known unbearable depths of emotional suffering. If there is one thing I would say to anyone entering social work, it would be this: Do not let anyone squash your creativity or the passion that you bring to your work. Accept that as you forge your identity as a social worker, you will come face-to-face with your areas of greatest vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness, it means you are practising with authenticity, putting yourself into places that require you to be courageous. Be real with one another about your areas of susceptibility and take care of your creative spirits – they are fragile, yet they are also your greatest resource.

Do not remain in a job where your workload is such that you are no longer able to be creative, innovative, authentic or passionate. You can expect some overtime, some late nights – but set your boundaries early on. You will almost certainly, as part of your training, have learned about the impacts of toxic stress upon a child’s developing brain, the dangers of persistent states of unmanageable stress.

Do not remain in a role that places you in such a state. An artist cannot blossom under such conditions. When you are overwhelmed, your practice will become process driven and detached, you will lean on rigidity, you will lose your creative space, thus your ability to be attuned to those you serve. There will be times for clear solution focused, rational planning, a painting of precision. This will require the space and time to reflect and hypothesise both individually and collectively. The more decisions you can make as a team the more space you will find for reflexivity and the more you will develop your creative thinking.

Do not become a martyr to your job, there is no glory in the fall that will eventually come. You cannot serve others if you are no longer serving your own needs. Do not let your passion rule you if you are not able to retain the same passion for your family, your closest counterparts. 

Be authentic and brave but do not remain in a place that crushes your creative spirit, a place that does not allow you the time to reflect or to paint your picture with sensitivity and investment. Advocate, speak out, even if your voice trembles. Advocate for the most vulnerable in society, but with the same passion, advocate for yourself, because the two are not mutually exclusive. 

Claire works as a supervising social worker for foster carers