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What is the difference between helping service users and being a professional Social Worker?
Social work in UK has been a regulated profession since 2005 and the title ‘Social worker’ is protected by its regulatory body (GSCC) that entitles only those professionally qualified to use this term to describe themselves. Social work professionals are held accountable to the law, their employers, service users and to the GSCC code of ethics. They are guided by principles which make up an ethical framework these can sometimes prevent a social worker to do what service users may see as helping. More than helping, social work is seen as enabling people to resolve their problems. Therefore, working with them to develop skills required to overcome the problem, rather than providing a quick fix. The skills of empowerment, advocacy and user involvement are needed in professional practice so the social worker would be able to exercise their duty in line with the professional code of practice and conduct. This would help to limit bad practices while also promoting moral and job satisfaction.
Firstly, this essay will give a brief definition of what is social work; it will then go on to examine the key principles in social work practice. The role of a social worker, their responsibilities and the ethical framework will be described in some detail. It will then conclude with an examination on the significance in working in partnership. Lastly, I will look into the issues of diversity along with AOP and ADP. Finally, this essay will look on the significance of service user and carer experiences and perspectives along with a brief conclusion.
Social work is defined by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) as a ‘profession that promotes social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilising theories of human behaviour and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work’ (IFSW, 2000).
This definition of Social work shows that the duties of social work practitioners are linked with principles of empowerment, human right and social justice. Social work’s main duty is ‘to enable all people to develop their full potential, enrich their lives, and prevent dysfunction’ (IFSW, 2000). They will act as advocates on behalf of the people they serve and their duty is focused on problem solving also bringing about change. ‘Social work is an interrelated system of values, theory and practice’ (IFSW, 2000).
Social work is also a form of social control, ‘this because it involves promoting and protecting the welfare of not only the individual but also the wider community this dual responsibility often causes conflicts and tensions’, (Thompson, 2009, p.3). Social workers come to contact with individuals from many different backgrounds. Their aim is to help people overcome difficulties and live a successful life, while there are times where practitioners are there to support people in accepting a situation that cannot be changed (e.g. terminal illness, etc.). What differs social work from other professionals is the complexity and the variety of the roles in which they are involved.
The need to involve service users wherever possible and working closely with other professionals is required by a number of legislations, this makes the practice in a way easier, as it rules out misunderstandings or the possibility of missing out on important information. Individuals and other professionals involved in the process of working in partnership have to be involved during each stage of intervention. Partnership working is seen as a highly skilled activity, ‘it requires the ability to communicate and engage, assess and plan, to be sensitive and observant, and so on’, (Thompson, 2009, p.118).
Social work practitioners are expected to take regular training in order to expand their knowledge as the result of continuous developments in policies, theories etc. “Social work is an evolving profession, constantly responding to new policy aspirations, expanding knowledge and rising public aspirations.” (GSCC, 2008, p.10).
Trevithick (2009) categirizes knowledge under three headings that overlap and are linked together:
- Theoretical – borrowed theories, analyse theories (purpose of SW), practice theories/approaches
- Factual – law/legislation, social policy, etc.
- Practice/practical/personal – acquisitioned, used, created knowledge.
Trevithick (2009, p.25-43).
The advantage of this framework would be that it gives directions where there is a need to further expand your knowledge. Social work profession requires a breadth and in depth knowledge base, however, ‘the knowledge base of the caring profession is not appreciated by the general public ….. partly due to the assumptions about the caring professionals being ‘common sense’ and requiring little or no specialist knowledge or skills’, (Thompson, 2009, p.11)
Social work professionals are guided by a set of values and a Code of Practice. Practice ethics are based on these values which aim to inform social workers intervention with service users. The code of practice set up by the general social care council (GSCC) offers an ethical framework to its practitioners’, this aims to maintain a standard of conduct for both employers and employees.
The social work code of conduct is designed to serve social workers when practicing their profession, it contains ethical principles which will underpin the approach taken in practice. ‘The professional code of conduct serves many different functions such as; guidance, regulation, discipline, protection, information, proclamation, negotiation,’ (Values and ethics in practice, p.127). It is very helpful to social workers as it offers guidelines as to what is expected from them as professionals.
Social workers have to be familiar with their value base and abide to them in day to day work. They have to put into practice the understanding of the values when practicing their profession. Ethical awareness is an essential part of the social work practices, a social worker’s ability to act ethically is vital when aiming to provide a high standard of services. ‘The code of conduct, ideally, offers the prospect, tantalizing if theoretical, of resolving value and ethical issues in social work’ (Adams et al. 2009, p.37). The day to day practice and the uncertainty which social workers can sometimes face would carry ethical dilemmas which will challenge their practice, ‘ethical dilemmas occur when the social worker has a choice between two different courses of action that can be both morally right but only one choice can be made, or when either course of action if chosen, would lead to the compromise of values or principles, (Purtilo, 1993),’ (Values and ethics in practice, p.117 ). Ethics and values can also intersect ‘when values or moral principles are in conflict, which poses a challenge about what to do, then an ethical problem has occurred, (Purtilo, 1993),'(Values and ethics in practice, p.117 ).
The traditional values developed by Biestek (1961), outlined the principles which formed the fundamentals of the social work practice. These principles were made up of seven points and act as an underlying framework to intervention with service users.
- Non-judgmental attitude;
- Purposeful expression of feelings;
- Controlled emotional involvement;
- User self-determination;
(Crawford and Walke, 2008, p.6)
These principles are essential to social work practice as they comply with what social work stands for, human right and social justice. Individuality for example gives the right to the service users to be free from bias and prejudice, therefore the social worker should avoid labels and stereotyping. Non-judgmental attitude would assure the situations are examined without bias, requiring social workers to avoid personal feelings and prejudices. Acceptance implies the expression of genuine concern, acknowledging the service users point of view, mutual respect, etc. Social workers have to give the opportunity to service users to purposefully express their feelings. In this way they will feel empowered and respected. Controlled emotional involvement requires the social worker to express their feelings but however in a controlled way, they should not come across as cold or disinterested this should be guided by knowledge and purpose, at the same time avoiding to over identify with the service user. Self determination is a principle that places importance in recognising the service user’s rights and needs to autonomy, right of decision making and the right of choice. Confidentiality is a right that service users are entitled to; this implies that consent must be taken from the service users before the information can be disclosed, unless there is a situation where other people may be at risk.
In social work there is a wide variety of theories and methods that help social workers intervene, the theory or method chosen will influence the language used and will shape the relationship between the social worker and service user. Language is the wealth of communication, it can open or close doors but also it can influence actions. ‘Language plays a big part of power relations that have to be unpacked and understood for empowerment to occur, (Dominelli, 2002)’ (Adams et al. 2009, p.175). Being a good communicator is essential to social work practice as communications skills are essential to building a relationship and also interviewing. ‘Lishman (1994) identifies four types of communicating: symbolic, verbal, nonverbal and written’, any type of communication is essential to all professional practices therefore social workers have to ‘simultaneously ask good questions, listen actively, convey information, exercise scepticism and reflect on interaction’, Adams et al (2009, p.176-178).
” Social work professionals are expected to work in partnership with people to find the solutions and achieve the outcomes they want, and to collaborate with other agencies and disciplines to ensure support is delivered in a coordinated way.” (GSCC, 2008, p.6)
One of the principles in building an effective relationship will be honesty (e.g. explaining the reason for intervention). Exercising mutual respect should be another fundamental principle in relationship building, keeping appointments or being on time is a very simple example but however very important. Respect should be exercised even in a case of different personal values as social workers are not there to judge but to help. Consistency is another principle that the service users appreciate, as it shows concern about their situation and understanding. Ethical behavior is essential, because as a social worker there is the duty to respect the code of conduct that social work abides to. Explaining issues that might arise during the intervention and making things clear before work is commenced can rule out later misunderstandings. All these principles will contribute to underpin the trust aspect of the relationship and make the intervention more effective.
Social workers always try to involve service users as much as possible in every aspect of their intervention, however, this is not always possible. There are times where social workers are requested to reach decisions and make judgments so that they can protect vulnerable people or in order to implement control. Social workers have legal powers which they would exercise to protect vulnerable people who may be at risk, this however may sometimes conflict with what other people involved wish for.
Anti-oppressive practice is a frame work that aims to incorporate the social work value base, it is a response to the continual lobbying by the oppressed individuals. Professionals providing anti-oppressive services redefine professionalism within an open power sharing framework and precise human rights-based value systems. ‘Practicing equality involves practitioners in valuing ‘difference’ in life-styles and identity instead of demanding uniformity’ (Adams et al. 2009, p.55).
Power imbalance is an important issue that should be addressed when working in an anti-oppressive way. The power that the social worker holds can be used both ways, constructively – aiming to empower the service user, but also social workers can abuse this power therefore reinforcing the power imbalance and oppression. However there is always the risk of being oppressive even though not intentionally, e.g. Through ‘naivety or ignorance, reinforcing stereotypes, inappropriate language, using power inappropriately and by acting as an ‘expert’, Thompson (2009, p.158-159). Social workers are involved in many complex interactions, ‘we have to recognize the potential for social work to do harm as well as good’ (Thompson, 2009, p.80). When looking at how inequalities and oppression manifest themselves, the PCS (Thompson, 1996) would be helpful.
Service user and carer involvement and participation can be challenging and also rewarding. However it is very valuable to social work practice, service users and carers can get involved in their own package of services or in a strategic planning and service development. ‘Users’ views of the quality of services and their participation in providing regular feedback on all aspects of social work are therefore an essential part of good practice’,(Warren, 2009, p.15). Service users’ and carers’ perspectives on services provided, have been sought by many researches for and also evaluators. However, in the recent years there has been a distribution of power which has resulted in the participation of the service users but also giving them the power to drive the research project.
In conclusion, social work is a challenging profession which continually challenges the boundaries of its practitioners, whether on a personal, cultural or professional level. Ethics, morals and values are all essential parts of the profession practice. Social workers have to practice in e reflective way, while recognizing diversities which they come across in a daily basis. ‘A social work practice that takes no account of existing inequalities runs the risk of: failing to recognize important factors in someone’s live, causing tension, reinforcing the negative effects of discrimination’ (Thompson, 2009, p.26).
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Bibliography & References
- Adams, R., Domilelli, L., Payne, M., (2009), Critical Practice In Social Work, 2rd edition, Palgrave Macmillan.
- Adams, R., Domilelli, L., Payne, M., (2009), Social Work: Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, 3rd edition, Palgrave Macmillan.
- BASW (1996) The Code of Ethics for Social Work, (www.basw.co.uk – accessed: 09/04/2010)
- Crawford, K., Walke, J., (2008), Social Work with Older People, 2nd Edition, Learning Matters.
- Eby, M., Gallagher, A., Values and Ethics in Practice, Chapter 7, (Course material).
- http://www.ifsw.org/f38000138.html (accessed: 12/04/2010)
- Thompson, N., (2009), Understanding Social Work, 3rd Edition, Palgrave Macmillan.
- Trevithick, P., (2009), Social Work Skills – a practice handbook, 2nd Edition, Open University Press.
- Warren, J., (2009), Service User and Carer Participation in Social Work, Learning Matters.
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