Keeping ourselves going: Self-education on emotional reflection and stability
Gerry Nosowska and Jo Fox discuss what social workers can do to ensure that they are able to continue to practise in the face of adversity
Social work is difficult. Yet social workers keep going. So, what sustains us? We think it is a mixture of our own integrity, the people around us, and our collective effort to make the world a better place. We produce and present the Helpful Social Work podcast where we discuss everything to do with the sector. Our podcasts always start with a definition that we then use to initiate our discussions. As such, the word sustain means to keep going, to encourage or to stop from sinking and it comes from a set of root words meaning to hold from under. So, it is literally to prop up.
We all need a form of ‘scaffolding’ in social work to sustain us. The uncertainty, the amount and the complexity of the work make for a tiring job to start with, particularly after a recession and the cuts that austerity has brought.
However, it is the moral difficulty of the work that is really striking. We face moral dilemmas -- when we are not sure which path is the more ethical to take. However, we also experience moral distress. This happens when we know what is right to do but we are not able to do it -- often because of a lack of resources.
Our want to help others
The first piece of ‘scaffolding’ comes from social work itself. We are engaged in something that matters. This purpose and our ethics -- to uphold human rights and social justice – are inspiring and keep us going when we are struggling.
The second piece of ‘scaffolding’ is our own integrity, which we consider to be comprised of three concepts: trueness to self; soundness; and completeness. When our values and ethics align to the purpose of social work and to our role, we uphold our integrity. When we attend to the impact of our work on ourselves and seek help, we uphold our integrity, and when we use our whole self in our work – our heads, hands, heart and feet – we uphold our integrity.
The people who support us
The third piece of ‘scaffolding’ is the people around us. Our colleagues provide vital support that helps us manage the impact of the work. The relationships we have with our peers, supervisors, managers, and friends in social work help us to keep going every day. Fellow social workers offer understanding, insight, advice, help, and hope.
Social work allies
The fourth piece of ‘scaffolding’ is our allies. Social workers are not the only people trying to help others. We can collaborate and make more impact with others. This starts with working with people who have experience of social work and social care. Their wisdom and insight enriches our knowledge and experience. They help us see and realise the possibilities in our work. We also need help from allies in other agencies who are working to the same goals. We also need some cheerleaders in our personal lives -- people who ‘get’ social work and recognise its value.
Social workers as a collective
The final bit of ‘scaffolding’ is our collective action. Every action we take to make the world better, however small, is a deliberate act of hope. We do this every day. Imagine how much more powerful it can be when we join up with others and act together. There are many structural issues that limit the potential of social work – poverty, oppression, and inequality leap out. Taking these on, in whatever way, makes social work more possible and our efforts more rewarding.
Social work is the best job in the world. Social workers have the potential to make a profound difference to people’s lives. If we build this form of ‘scaffolding’ around us, then children, families, and adults will have a resourceful, empathetic, and optimistic practitioner to work alongside them on the difficult journeys they are making.
Things to Consider:
Keep your motivations close
Remember why you became a social worker and identify where your role allows you to be genuinely helpful.
Ask for help
Recognise that you deserve support too – ask for supervision that includes talking about how you are. Ring your supervisor or a colleague if you have had a difficult time, and ask for advice if you are stuck.
Create a strong support network
Spend time with colleagues who prop you up. Look for supportive people in your organisation, join together to ask for the support you need, find learning opportunities where you can talk about social work ethics, and get in touch with social work friends.
Listen and share
Look for allies and people who ‘get’ social work – read and listen to the voices of people with lived experience, ask people with lived experience to tell you what would be helpful to them, and get to know people in other agencies who share your values. Figure out who you can honestly tell about your day and the successes you have.
Look for the hopeful people in our society and get involved in what they are doing. Support the British Association of Social Workers’ campaigns, find a charity you love and get involved, donate or volunteer at a foodbank or homeless shelter, or get involved in climate change activism.
Gerry and Jo’s podcast, Helpful Social Work, has been running for four series and can be found at
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