Over 25 years as an Australian social worker, my experience is that a good proportion of the population relate “social worker” to someone who removes children or someone who butts their nose into other people’s business. Often, it’s perceived that we practice our “stuff” in a government department, hospital to find elderly people nursing homes, or in a child welfare setting to assess family functioning.
How well do we as social workers educate our target groups about the services we provide? What do the general public perceive a “social worker” to be, and whose responsibility is it to promote our profession? Making the choice to create a career out of being a social worker has its disadvantages. After graduation it really didn’t take me long to stop calling myself a social worker. I found it to be a great conversation stopper at social gatherings. “So what do you do?” “I’m a social worker”. Responses ranged from “oh okay, so you work with dole bludgers” to “oh you’re one of those do-gooders” to “ oh that’s interesting, so what is it that you actually do?”
Social work is a profession. Yet as a profession, it is still battling recognition in both the allied health sector and in the public arena. Historically, we were the charity workers, literally the “do-gooders”, those who gave up their time to help the disadvantaged. Our work was viewed as practical, bandaid, prescriptive, and often linked to churches who traditionally established programs to assist the poor.
Thankfully by the time I attended university in the early eighties, some semblance of a professional identity had been established, albeit still vague to the masses. “Change Agent” was one of the most apt descriptions to me at the time, and one that I use frequently today when explaining what it is that social workers actually do. Also, I was taught the term “change agent” crosses the boundaries of the three distinct areas which consist of casework, group work. and community work.
No, I did not learn how to hand out a welfare cheque to a client. Casework meant one on one counselling intervention to help an individual or family function better. No, I did not learn how to ladle the soup into bowls, and tuck people in at the local homeless shelter. I learnt how to facilitate groups, empower participants, foster mutual goals and maintain enthusiasm. And finally no, I did not learn how to partake in the local Neighbourhood Watch meetings to ensure the safety of the local community. I learnt to focus on community assets as opposed to disadvantages, inspire community participation with action towards change, and advocate on behalf of groups whose disadvantages place obstacles in the way of being heard.
When social workers are viewed as “agents of change”, it does more than just clarify our role to the public. It actually places an obligation back to the profession to ensure positive change happens for our clients. It isn’t enough to sit in the geriatric ward of the local hospital and simply look after the practicalities of a nursing home booking without checking on coping skills. Or to hand someone a food voucher without exploring ways to improve their situation in the long term. It doesn’t cut it to sit in the office at a community centre booking external hirers and stating boldly you’re achieving something for your community. It’s not enough to sit at the head of the table at a group session and be the perceived expert whilst using psychological jargon only another professional would understand. These methods simply maintain the status quo – they do not inspire change, nor do they empower people to carry out change in order to reach their full potential.
So perhaps we need to look at our own profession and ask ourselves, what is it that we as a group are doing to maximize our profession’s full potential? Why is it that the public perception of our role is still not accurate, let alone widely known? How do we achieve a better “branding” of the words social work and social worker?
“The general public” are our clients. They’re our target group(s). There are a whole team of professionals including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, social scientists and welfare workers, who aim to empower them to lead more fulfilling lives. Yet Mr and Mrs Public don’t understand the differences in our qualifications. Our “consumers” actually don’t understand the “service” they’re purchasing, nor the good, the bad and the relevant. They just want “help” or “therapy” or “representation” and more often than not, the term “psychologist” will come to their minds. How do we change this to ensure our clients will understand their choices?
It’s time to make change to the public perception of social work. Clarify our skills in simple, layman’s terms. What is our core business? How do you describe “social work” to your family and friends? How would you make a visit to a social worker sound appealing or helpful if you had to make a poster to promote our profession?
Start the ball rolling, leave a suggestion below as to how YOU would educate the general public to increase understanding of our skills and start “branding” our profession!