How to tackle social care’s growing identity crisis

If the views of today’s social care professionals are anything to go by, social work is losing its identity. You only need to speak to social workers themselves for it to become clear that their roles and responsibilities feel very distant from the values that they originally trained for. It would seem that the sector is going through an identity crisis – a crisis that we need to address if the profession is to survive long term.

The sector has already been cut by more than 30%, and these cuts, which are showing no signs of stopping, are dismantling the industry. Jobs once belonging to qualified social workers are now being passed on to unqualified staff. Local authorities are beginning to contract out social work services and on top of this, the recent closure of the College of Social Work is just another blow for the sector. Social work is struggling, and it doesn’t help that the media appears to be relentless with its attacks on the profession.

But, admittedly, there is a problem. Just last month, the Centre for Welfare Reform hosted a seminar for social workers, both within and outside of local government, and a common theme emerged – there is a clear disparity between the expectations and reality of social work.

Responsibilities such as supporting people with mental health problems, helping families resolve problems, assisting with community development and collaborating with government to improve policies for people with dementia are the lifeblood of social work and the activities that social workers claim to be most proud of…yet these seem lower on the agenda for social workers than you would think.

Social workers within local government, particularly in care management roles, have expressed how, rather than focusing their time on such efforts, they instead perform mechanical tasks of assessment, monitoring and control – hardly the true nature of social work, no? On the other hand, despite completing such tasks, those working outside of government do not feel like true social workers simply because they didn’t work for a local authority.

It’s safe to say that we have a profession with an entirely conflicted identity.

Now, you could blame this on the fact that social work has tried to raise its profile by following other careers with a focus on ‘qualified’ workers – the argument here being that it’s somewhat narrow-minded and contradictory to suggest that social work is only effective if carried out by a narrow circle of qualified individuals. Indeed, some of the best managers have come to their roles without a background in the sector at all.

At the heart of social work is the ability to form relationships and help people come to their own decisions and solutions. Granted; these are difficult skills, but nonetheless, they are profoundly human and not limited to a specialist group of people.

So what can we do?

The answer lies in rethinking our approach to social work – supporting all of its forms and all of the people behind them. We need to rethink what it means to be a professional social worker and not limit ourselves to selecting management from within the sector. Instead, we should look outwards to those people who are trying to achieve social balance.

Perhaps it’s time we apply the very principles of good social work to itself and build a bigger and stronger sector from the inside out.