2.3 Developing a professional social work identity
Empathy is a skill that is vital in social work for understanding the experience of service users in order to help them more effectively. This is particularly important for those service users whose experiences are very different from your own. Empathy is one of the basic building blocks that you will need to develop a professional social work identity. Later in this learning guide you will consider service user perspectives, and values and ethics.
How people respond to stress and distress depends on their previous experiences and the sense they have been able to make of them. If a service user’s experiences are very different from yours, then you are quite likely to misunderstand their response, or even the cause of their distress. Such misunderstanding can lead you, as the practitioner, to react unhelpfully, and to make things worse.
You cannot assume that other people will see things the way you do, or respond in the way that you would, because your feelings and reactions are influenced by your particular life experiences. How, then, can you go about trying to better understand the experiences and feelings of others? The answer is by developing empathy, something that is less straightforward than it sounds, and which we explore in some detail in this section.
What is empathy?
One definition of empathy comes from the work of the US writer on counselling and social work, Gerard Egan, who defines empathy as:
‘The ability to enter into and understand the world of another person and to communicate this understanding to him or her.’
In the context of social work, Lena Dominelli uses a slightly different approach using a common metaphor to make the same point when she writes about ‘placing oneself in another’s shoes’ (Dominelli, 2002).These quotes emphasise that the responsibility lies with the professional to make the effort to understand the other person. However, doing so requires effort and imagination.
Most people actually use empathy in everyday life when they read a novel, watch a television ‘soap’, a film or a play. Indeed, we often judge the success of the novel, film or play by the extent to which we are caught up in the world it is portraying, and how ‘real’ the characters in the ‘story’ feel to us. Sometimes we find that the characters continue to live in our imaginations long after the book has been closed or the film or play ended. We have entered, without too much difficulty, into the world created by the ‘story-teller’. In so doing we identify with the characters we meet there and enter into their worlds.
Service users frequently tell us that skills of empathy and understanding are relevant in all social workers, including the following:
giving space and making people feel safe so they can ‘come out’ or reveal very personal aspects of their lives to social workers
remembering shared responsibilities in relationships and thinking how preferences for shared aspects of care could be maintained and not disrupted (e.g. how and when the service user would choose to take care of their teeth and bathe, and how the carer could support this)
taking on board the knowledge that carers and service users have about the best ways of helping and caring for an individual.
Lack of empathy
It is clear that service users are very quick to sense when practitioners are attempting to understand but are struggling to empathise. Here is a comment from Kate, a service user at a family centre in Northamptonshire, which illustrates the point very well:
I found that a lot of social workers aren’t really interested in you as a person, and a lot of them say things like ‘I know how you feel’ and ‘I understand what you’re going through’, yet they don’t really know how you feel or what you are going through. That’s because a lot of them have learned it from books, they haven’t experienced it from their own life experiences.
When empathy is difficult
There are a number of reasons why on occasions it may be difficult to demonstrate empathy towards service users. The most obvious is where there is some characteristic the practitioner finds difficult to tolerate. An experienced social work colleague once remarked that he found it difficult to work with ‘really smelly people’. This may seem trivial, but for that worker it was important to recognise the problem and thereby guard against giving an unsatisfactory service to ‘really smelly people’ or to any other group towards whom he felt an antipathy. Clearly it is important for social workers, as for all members of the helping professions, to ensure that personal likes or dislikes do not influence the provision of services.
While this example seems straightforward enough, other instances can be trickier, when strongly held beliefs may clash. For example, it might be difficult for a social worker who is strongly committed to anti-racist practice to show empathy towards a service user who is making racist remarks or refusing to accept services from a black or minority ethnic service provider.
Another and rather different circumstance might be where the experiences described by the service user are beyond the comprehension of the social worker, and trying to understand them is painful for the social worker. Hedi Argent has described the experiences of a girl who, as a child refugee, saw one of her companions eaten by a wild animal during a border crossing. The girl’s account includes the following description of her experience:
Sudanese child refugee
I left Sudan at night when I was 10 years old. My brother and I walked to Ethiopia. There were many of us walking. I was carrying bread, water and a kind of blanket. I ate every other day. One day I ate, the next I didn’t. I also had a knife to kill wolves. We walked for two weeks. Then we stayed in Ethiopia for a month before coming to England on an aeroplane. I wanted to go to school.
Although Argent did this work with refugees in the 1990s, sadly children and young people today continue to be able to give us accounts of their extraordinary experiences in fleeing their homes to find safety. Traumatic incidents do happen in times of war and conflict, and yet few practitioners will have any idea what such an experience is like. So what should you do? To say in such circumstances ‘I know how you feel’ or ‘I understand what you have been through’ would sound false and fatuous. Moreover, the service user would be only too aware of this and may find it hard to believe the social worker about other matters. Some social workers might be inclined to disbelieve or minimise the account as too fantastic to be true; but not being taken seriously in this way is likely to damage the service user further. A social worker who feels uncertain or incredulous about such an account should seek advice from organisations that have specialised knowledge in the relevant area, such as the Refugee Council, Refugee Action or a local refugee community organisation.
Find out more
If you would like to learn more about the experiences of child refugees, visit the website of.
The quality of empathy is an essential ingredient in social work practice, however it is not something exclusive to social work; as we have seen, empathy is a human quality that is familiar to us in our everyday lives. Like other such qualities, it can be developed through practice and through thinking about that practice. It helps us to enter into the experiences of other people and thereby understand them better. This becomes especially important when service users come with experiences that are far removed from the social worker’s life experience.
Service users’ perceptions
This section describes service users’ perceptions when they seek help from social workers or are directed to them.
Few people find it straightforward to ask for help in their personal lives. They may feel that they should be able to stand on their own two feet and that their need for help shows a failure to do so. There may also be a worry about how professionals will respond to their request for help. Will they be sympathetic and understanding? Or will they be rude, dismissive, belittling? Will there be a benefit or will it make things worse? If the involvement of the social worker is being imposed, then these questions will be sharper, and the service user may well view the social worker with ambivalence or even hostility.
These sorts of questions may be familiar to you from occasions when you have been a service user – for instance, when you have used the National Health Service (NHS) or perhaps been involved with teachers over your child’s progress at school. As a service user, perhaps you have felt unsure of what to expect from other professionals. If the service you have received has in some way been unsatisfactory, perhaps you have not known to whom you might complain.
Activity 8 Your experience of being a service user
Think of two occasions when you have been a service user and have had to ask for help. Think of one occasion when your request was dealt with in a helpful way, and another when you found the response to be unhelpful. These experiences could have been with the NHS, an educational institution, public transport, and so on.
Write down what was helpful in the first instance and what was unhelpful on the second occasion. How much did it matter that you did or didn’t get what you wanted? How important was the way in which you were treated? What lessons can you draw for your practice from your own experience of being a service user?
You may have felt that the way in which people in official positions responded to a request was significant, and it may have been as important as the outcome, whether or not you got what you wanted.
You may be more likely to recall the experience as a positive one if:
you were able to deal directly with one person representing the organisation
you were treated courteously and promptly
you felt that your point of view was being taken seriously
you were given explanations, so that you understood why the help you were requesting was or was not available.
Conversely, you are likely to recall the experience as negative if:
you were not able to find anyone to talk to or found yourself getting an automated answerphone
you were dealt with in an impersonal and unnecessarily officious way
you had to wait for a long time to be seen and/or to know the outcome of your request
you felt that you had not been listened to properly
you were not given any reasons for the decision.
Previous experiences will doubtless affect your expectations when you need help in the future.
All the points above are as true for users of social work services as they are for you.
What service users want
Users in all client groups value, it seems, similar characteristics in their social workers. They want workers who keep appointments, understand the user’s perception of the problem, are straight and not two-faced, and are warm and are efficient in getting services and benefits.
In his review of client perspective studies, Martin Davies draws out eight lessons for social workers and their agencies:
Lesson 1 – Improve the pathways to social work service.
Lesson 2 – Handle the intake process with imagination, sensitivity and tact – put clients at their ease.
Lesson 3 – Be concerned with the client as a person. Handle the personal in a professional manner. That is the heart of social work.
Lesson 4 – Identify the client’s expectations and relate these to the agency’s obligations and resources. Be active. Be alert. Be helpful. And don’t string the client along.
Lesson 5 – Be a good counsellor.
Lesson 6 – Remember that the social work role puts you in a position of power and privilege. You cannot escape or deny it. And you must be honest and open about your agency’s responsibilities.
Lesson 7 – Use your knowledge and experience to benefit the client. Keep it up to date.
Lesson 8 – Always be trustworthy. Always be reliable.
Service users above all else value relationships they have with social workers which are based on warmth, empathy, reliability and respect (Beresford, 2012). This is the opposite of formulaic and bureaucratic contact. Beresford (2012) identifies the following four qualities:
Good social work is social and based on seeing people’s lives as a whole, not just their problems.
It offers practical as well as emotional support. Social workers do not treat psychological and emotional difficulties in isolation from people’s real worlds.
Listening and not judging. Service users saw the quality and skill of being able to listen as the basis for much else that service users value.
Delivering what service users want
Beresford suggests that sometimes this means rediscovering the community orientated side of social work, which fosters empowerment, discourages discrimination and can mean social workers taking the side of service users even when that conflicts with their employers and other state agencies.
Traditionally social work has emphasised that it should treat service users with respect, valuing them as unique persons and accepting them with all their failings. It has often failed to live up to these high ideals, but there is no contradiction between what service users want and the values that social work professes.
Changing roles for service users
In recent years some service user groups have wanted to become far more involved in having some say in the services they receive. People with disabilities, users of mental health services, older people, carers and children in the care of local authorities are just a few of the examples of such groups.
For example, in their service user case study on palliative care in 2008, Beresford and colleagues found that service users valued being actively involved as equal partners in co-producing and having a say about services, rather than adhering to a traditional model where service users were expected to be passive, dependent, grateful and well behaved. (Beresford et al., 2008).
This is a major challenge to social workers and to social work agencies and it leads on to what has been called ‘a user-led model of social work’ (Croft and Beresford, 2002). Croft and Beresford argue that in order for this to happen, service users’ demands for autonomy, participation and inclusion must be met. Service users are looking for social workers and social services which:
- are concerned with enabling people to be independent rather than maintaining their dependency on social workers and their services, by focusing on people’s abilities rather than their incapacities, and supporting their independence.
- do not serve as a palliative for the failure of mainstream policies but instead are systematically related to broader rights and need-led social and economic policies which include rather than marginalize groups like disabled people, lone parents and psychiatric system survivors, ensuring their access to education, training, child care and employment.
- provide support rather than direction and are fully participative.
This requires a major shift, not just from social workers, but from their agencies and from many other services too, not least because social workers have pressing statutory responsibilities and limited time.
The need for education, training, child care and employment highlights the fact that many service users are disadvantaged in several ways. Croft and Beresford point to the connections between social disadvantage and personal distress and to the need for policies, agencies and workers to tackle both. These issues are relevant to the next section, where social work values are considered.
Values and ethical practice
You have already started to think about two significant areas of values: the importance of being aware of individual biography and recognising ascribed identities and the potentially damaging impact that they can have. In this section you will consider a specific area of values: the relationship between personal and professional social work values and ethical practice.
‘Values’ is a term that is used frequently in social work and the profession has had many debates about what it means. Values refer literally to the choices and actions that you think are important. Values provide you with some personal guidance in the way you understand any situation and affect the way you respond. You don’t often have to express or articulate what you value because most of the time it is an implicit part of your motivation and thinking. For this reason, understanding what you value becomes an important element in exploring the way you work with people.
The term ‘ethics’ is used to refer to the norms or standards of behaviour people follow concerning what is regarded as good or bad, right or wrong. In social work, the term a ‘code of ethics’ is used to denote a set of principles, standards or rules of conduct for ethical practice. It is also used to talk about ethical dilemmas – i.e. difficult questions about the best course of action to take which incorporates social work values.
Walmsley (2012) summed the difference between ethics and values:
- Ethics is about deciding what is the right thing to do in a particular situation
- Values are the beliefs individuals have as to what they consider is right or wrong.
Each of the regulatory bodies for each of the four nations of the UK makes clear the centrality of professional values in social work practice, and all social workers are expected to practice in accordance with these and the law. In Wales, for example, the Care Council for Wales requires that social workers behave at all times within its Code of Practice for Social Care Workers, and that their practice is informed by the National Occupational Standards (NOS) for social work. The various bodies make broad statements, but how they are interpreted in practice will vary. There is no one right value set, and there are many ways of being ‘right’, but there are undoubtedly wrong and inappropriate stances and value positions. A good understanding of how social inequalities are produced and reproduced within social worker and service user relationships is central to being a competent social worker.
This is why you need to identify your own values, learn what values you are expected to work to as a social worker, and decide how you situate yourself in relation to the ethical issues you will face in practice.
In beginning to explore this complex and important subject, it’s worth devoting some attention to a wider consideration of where values come from, and where you acquired your own values.
Activity 9 Your own values
Think about where your values come from. List the different influences that you think have had an impact on your values.
In the process of growing up, most people develop a system of values which are influenced by their environments in the widest sense (this includes family, school, community, cultural and wider social environments), by their experiences and by their reflections on both. Through such influences we acquire some idea of what matters most to us – of what we value – and develop a system of personal values, which we eventually bring into our social work. Some of those values may be widely shared within society and some might be held by certain groups within the population.
It is likely that not all of your values will fit in easily with the values you encounter in social work, so it is important to note that social work practice is likely to challenge at least some of the values you hold.
While it is important to understand your own value base there are also values that it is expected that all social workers adhere to in their professional practice, which are articulated in professional frameworks.
Social work values
Service users’ expectations of social workers include the values of respect for service users’ own expertise, empowerment in decision making, confidentiality, honesty about power and the social work role and the ability to challenge discrimination and put users and carers first.
One might say that these values are not restricted to social workers but are relevant to anyone who is dealing with people, such as shop assistants, bank officials, the clergy and police officers. Yet there is a long tradition in social work that emphasises the importance of ‘respect for persons’ – an idea, drawn from moral philosophy that goes beyond being respectful or disrespectful. In social work it derives from the casework tradition, and was most famously expounded by Felix Biestek, a Jesuit priest and social work teacher at Loyola Catholic University, Chicago, in his book The Casework Relationship, which appeared in 1961. Biestek (1961) listed seven principles of casework, which included the five values listed below. (The two remaining principles, purposeful expression of feelings and controlled emotional involvement, are less to do with values and more concerned with ‘how to do social work’.)
- individualisation (seeing each individual as unique)
- a non-judgemental attitude.
These are usually grouped together under the umbrella of ‘respect for persons’. Biestek’s emphasis was very much on creating a relationship between the social worker and the service user that brought about beneficial change for the service user. Put in these terms, ‘respect for persons’ goes far beyond what one would expect from shop assistants, bank officials and police officers!
Biestek’s approach may be criticised, however, for being too limited because it sees service users separately from the social context in which they live. It runs the risk, therefore, of ignoring or underestimating the extent to which the environment in which a services user lives affects their life and their ability to change it. Thus, it could be argued, the finest relationship in the world with the most highly skilled social worker would be of little use to a service user whose major problem is extreme poverty. The point is that social work values need to go beyond personalised moral principles if they are to address the social disadvantages that adversely affect so many service users.
Similarly, it is also too easy in any discussion of values to ignore the occupational context in which social workers practise and its influences. This issue will be addressed in the next section.
Ethics and professionalism: being accountable
One of the differences between just ‘doing the job’ and professional practice is knowing and thinking about what informs what we are doing. In other words, what explanation can we give for doing the job this way rather than that? Being able to explain ourselves to others is an essential skill in professional social work practice, because it is central to being ‘accountable’, or in other words being able to justify and take responsibility for what we do. The concept of accountability makes explanations such as ‘we’ve always done it like this’ or ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ not good enough.
One of the reasons for discussing accountability and the codes of practice required by care councils and regulatory bodies is to think about their implications in the context in which social workers actually operate, including their statutory responsibilities, the values of their employing organisation, service users, society at large, and their own values. What happens in the event of a conflict?
There will be many occasions, particularly in practice situations, where social workers have to exercise judgement and be accountable for their decisions. This is another important element in the values of ‘professionalism’. It implies that there are many situations in which laws, procedures, rules and guidelines reach their limits, and social workers need to exercise both discretion and professional judgement. Spicker (2008) summed up the dilemma:
Professionals reserve the areas in which they can act autonomously – the ‘clinical freedom’ of doctors, the social work relationship, or the conduct by teachers in their classes. There are tensions to be resolved; the need for flexibility and responsiveness has to be balanced against the agencies’ concerns to develop consistent practices and professional claims are mediated through a process of constant negotiation.
In other words, someone has to interpret and be accountable for rules and their limits, otherwise you end up with a list of rules, another list of rules about how to apply the rules, followed by another list, and so on. Lipsky (1980) suggested many social care workers could be viewed as ‘street level bureaucrats’. In this position they used their discretion to fulfil the procedural and bureaucratic demands of their organisation in ways that were consistent with their own values and motivations to help people. Since this time there has been continued tension about how to meet managerialist demand for rationing and consistency while also allowing social workers to act with professional autonomy and within their own value base (Mcdonald et al., 2008; Ellis, 2011; Evans, 2011).
Activity 10 Personal and professional values in a practice context
Watch this video and make notes in response to the questions. These video materials are parts of real-life social work situations which follow the work of a child protection team in Bristol, and which the OU has been involved in filming with the BBC for a programme called Protecting our Children.
Transcript: Personal and professional values
Where are we going first? When was the last time you were in here? Where's your lounge? Come on, then, let's go.
- What are your personal responses to the parent who is in this situation?
- How are your own ideas and values about parenting relevant?
- What are the professional or social work values that the worker demonstrates?
These videos illustrate some of the human complexities that social workers are confronted with every day. You may have had a range of emotional responses. Even though the mother in this clip was clearly unhappy and distressed by their situation, you may have found it hard to empathise, or the neglect of the child might have made you feel angry. It is important to notice and talk about your feelings and reactions, rather than ignore them. This is also a good time to think about how, as a social worker, you can maintain a professional response and respect for the humanity and dignity of service users.
In this scenario you saw the social workers demonstrating social work values in showing Biesteck’s ‘respect for the person’ and accountability to the law, their organisational context and other colleagues and organisations.
Social work is full of dilemmas and the morally active practitioner uses reflection and supervision as well as codes and protocols to think things through and arrive at the necessary decisions for action. Reflective practitioners will continue to question practice and seek improvements. In the next section, you will consider just what is meant by ‘reflective practice’ in social work.
Empathy is a skill which enables us to understand the lives of people with very different experiences from ourselves and it is therefore a valuable tool for social workers.
Social work is inextricably bound up with moral values.
Although social work is based on personalised moral values (such as respect for people), it also exists in a social and occupational context. Professional ethics and being professionally accountable are also intrinsic to professional social work.