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Why I'm supporting the Social Workers Union

We can't empower others if we don't empower ourselves, says Dr Neil Thompson ...

Neil Thompson
The least we can do is pull together and support one another: Dr Neil Thompson

As a long-standing trade unionist with a strong commitment to social justice, I welcomed the development of the Social Workers Union. I have been pleased and proud to be able to support the union by being involved in the annual conferences and by being involved in the training of union contacts.

Social work is a difficult and demanding job and we need to be on our mettle if we are to do it effectively without creating problems for ourselves such as stress, burn out or just plain exhaustion. For many years we talked about the need for both staff care and self-care.

Staff care meant that, if employers wanted to get the best results from their staff, they needed to make sure that their employees were well supported, valued and safe. Self-care meant that we have to be realistic in terms of balancing our own needs against those of the people we serve and/or our employers and our profession more broadly. These days, both these elements (staff care and self-care) tend to go under the heading of workplace wellbeing, an emerging philosophy that is premised on the idea that everyone benefits from workplaces being positive and supportive environments.

Part of the reason for the development of this approach has been the increasing pressure in workplace settings. Neoliberal thinking, with its emphasis on allowing the market to shape economic and social policy, has been dominant for some time now, resulting in higher levels of inequality, greater pressure on businesses to be profitable and the expectation that slimmed down public services can achieve more with less, and that the voluntary and community sectors can fill the gaps created by the underfunding of public services. All this adds up to immense pressure on staff and managers, and, potentially, greater conflict between staff and managers.

The net result is that the modern workplace is a highly pressurised environment, with a high proportion of people struggling to respond effectively to the demands made on them. The result can so easily be stress and related health problems, poor performance, blocks to learning, increased conflict and ill-feeling, higher levels of sickness absence, low morale and a general sense of malaise.

So often I have come across what I call the stress cycle, which describes how excessive pressures can lead to problems, those problems lead to increased pressure and thus more stress, and round and round the cycle goes, creating untold problems, not only for the individuals concerned, but also for many people around them.

There are no magic answers to these problems, but the least we can do is pull together and support one another through these difficult times. And that is, of course, a key part of what trade unionism is all about. We are fortunate to now have a union that is dedicated specifically to social work issues and concerns, a union that works closely with BASW, our professional association, to create the best set of circumstances for social work to thrive and flourish so that we can do the best we possibly can to address the needs of the people we serve.

As I have said time and time again, we make life very difficult for ourselves if we try to empower others without feeling empowered ourselves. SWU is a key part of that empowerment, as it offers the opportunity for us to take the term ‘union’ literally, to bring people together.

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser. He is an ambassador for BASW Cymru and a Lifetime Achievement Award holder. He edits a free e-newsletter at and his website and blog are at

  • SWU members are entitled to a discount on his online learning resources