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VIEWPOINT: What skills are needed for professionalism in social work?

Two practitioners outline the eight key elements they feel need to be in place to support professionalism in practice...

Dr Godfred Boahen

By Fran Wiles and Godfred Boahen

What does professionalism mean in social work, and what does it actually look like? Significant policy changes over the past 18 years have brought us legal protection of the title ‘social worker’, a shift in the educational requirements for social work from diploma-level to degree-level, recognition of the need for national regulation of social workers, and increased membership of the British Association of Social Workers.

Depending on your point of view, these developments can be seen as enhancing professionalism (which, after all, is usually stated as the intention of such policy measures). Alternatively, the increased government control of social work – such as inspections and prescribed procedures - can be interpreted as undermining professional skills, expertise and autonomy.

A contested concept

Professionalism itself, with its traditional implication of elitism, is a contested concept and not universally agreed to be a good thing.

Whatever your perspective, the trend towards the increased fragmentation of social work into a series of distinctive tasks or roles - such as child protection, adult mental health or working with disabled people - potentially diminishes collective professional identity. Our work on this topic has led us to consider social work professionalism as a shared endeavour, with common values, norms and culture, in which - despite initial appearances - we are all engaged together.

Besides conceptualising professionalism as a set of unifying values for social work, we have been exploring what it means in practice. For example, if one is acting in a professional manner as a social worker in a family court setting, what does that mean? What might that ‘look like’ and what skills might be required? And, does professionalism in any context mean the same, look the same or require the same set of skills as conducting research as a social worker, setting up a community housing project or providing counselling and support in the aftermath of a natural disaster (to name just a few examples of the different tasks and activities that, globally, social workers might engage in)?

Key areas of skill

We have identified certain key areas of skill that we consider to be important for autonomous professional practice across all social work roles: self-management; communication; risk and safeguarding; and leadership. These four areas are best thought of as ‘organising themes’ for thinking in a holistic way about professional skills. Self-management, for example, involves many discrete areas of ability such as being alert to professional standards and conduct, or being proactive in one’s own development. These abilities are also needed for successful communication, managing risk and safeguarding. Similarly, being a proficient communicator involves skills and techniques that form the heart of effective leadership and safeguarding.

We believe that professionalism - like the lettering that runs through a stick of rock - can be present in all aspects of routine, everyday social work. Working ‘professionally’ involves having a sound knowledge of, and ability in, key aspects of social work, and then being able to integrate these in everyday practice. Of course, social workers don’t usually do this integration consciously. However, becoming aware of the different elements and how they are being integrated is a key part of professional learning.

We suggest that there are eight key elements that need to be in place to support professionalism in the areas of self-management, communication, risk and safeguarding, and leadership. These are:

  • Self-awareness about professional and personal values;
  • Appropriate and ethical use of professional power;
  • Critical analysis;
  • Research mindedness;
  • Emotional resilience;
  • A sense of professional identity;
  • Engaging actively in supervision;
  • Continuing professional development.

Examples in practice

To illustrate our argument, let’s consider just two examples. Self-awareness and reflection feature strongly in social workers’ use of communication skills. In addition to being skillful in the general art of communicating, one must have capacity to reflect on the conduct and behaviour consistent with the title ‘social worker’. Professional power can show itself in the words we use to describe people and/or their situations, and the manner in which we communicate with service users. A social worker’s communication skills would be unethically deployed if they knowingly misrepresent service users’ needs, or persuade them to ‘consent’ to plans that the professional knows are not in their best interests.

Likewise, we argue that self-management skills are prerequisite for being professional. It is expected that social workers will exhibit greater autonomy over their work; skillfully manage the emotional demands of their roles; and understand the appropriate conduct expected of professional social workers. Self-management encompasses having the self-motivation to maintain the highest practice and ethical standards. Motivation enables practitioners to attempt difficult tasks and forms the basis for increased self-efficacy. Self-management includes accountability for career progression, and planning one’s own training and development needs.

This is not, of course, to downplay the duties of organisations to train and develop social workers. As a final note, therefore, we want to acknowledge the difficult employment conditions of social workers (at least in England), which can impede professionalism and self-management. Most social workers have high caseloads, less time to engage directly with service users and reduced training budgets. It is essential that the drive to enhance social workers’ professionalism doesn’t exempt organisations from their duty to provide the necessary structures to support professional practice.

Dr Fran Wiles is Senior Lecturer in Social Work at The Open University and Dr Godfred Boahen is Policy and Research Officer at BASW. Their new book ‘Professionalism and Self-Management’, which is part of the ‘Social Work Skills in Practice’ series was published in November 2018.

The authors will hold two workshops on the theme of the book in London and Birmingham on 30 and 31 January with concessionary rates for BASW members. For bookings, please visit: https://www.basw.co.uk/events/professionalism-and-self-management-skills-workshop-london

* This article is published by Professional Social Work magazine  which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers