This series of posts explores the learning curve I have progressed through over the course of the last nine months. I’ve been working as a support worker for a homelessness charity in South West London, and I went into this position with some fairly strong ideas over how best to do the job, what it was all about and how I wanted to conduct myself whilst working.
Long story short, I’ve had nearly all of these ideas and preconceptions overturned.
I used the last post to explore the idea that I needed to work through the role myself to understand why a lot of the approaches I had weren’t sustainable in the long term- I learnt through experience, and couldn’t take on good advice in the first couple of weeks, before I was at the point of grasping it’s inherent wisdom myself.
I want to use this post to explore the fact that whilst I knew I had strong ideas about the role, I wasn’t aware of how pervasive they were and how strongly I was holding onto them. I was working to a very specific rule book, when I started out nine months ago, and it’s only been through work and experience that I have come to learn other ways of working well which are based in the reality of the job, rather than the idea of it.
What I have come to learn is that in the role of support worker, or social worker, there is a slight dichotomy between the concepts of psycho-social/psycho-dynamic practises, and goal-orientated practises. Both of these concepts, when used as approaches to case-work with clients, are valid and relevant, and the good support worker will be able to utilise both of them (and more) in the course of their work.
My learning curve has been the process of retreating from concepts of psycho-social and psycho-dynamic working, and embracing goal-orientated methods of working instead.
This process hasn’t been easy for me. I’ve come to realise how strongly I believed, nine months ago when I started this job, that psycho-social/psycho-dynamic methods of working would be most effective in improving clients resilience, confidence, and thus their independence.
As this is a large part of our mission statement as support workers, I felt I was justified in this belief; in believing that listening to a client and working to make them feel better, is going to do a lot more to improve resilience than focusing solely on setting them up with Universal Credit and ensuring they are paying their rent each month.
I still believe this, to some extent. However, what I have learnt is that consistently working within a psycho-social/psycho-dynamic framework is not practical. There simply isn’t enough hours in the working day, to do that and work on all the practical issues which the client has as well.
Moreover, I was trying to employ this practise all of the time; always prioritising time to let the clients express their feelings rather than making time for the work we were supposed to be focusing on within their support plan.
Now I must add, here, that I know I’m not a psychotherapist, and when I say that I have worked to these methods I mean in a general and less focused sense. I mean that I will spend a lot of time talking to clients about the events of their past and their present, and encourage them explore feelings, and events in ways which might allow them to gain some sense of mastery over the negative feelings they have provoked.
This is likely a result of my background with mental illness, and my quite entrenched belief that talking through difficult events, is a really positive way of leaving them behind. My boss would likely scream at me here, and tell me that I’m not a psychotherapist, and so leave that job to the real doctors! She would be right, definitely.
But- I do believe that anybody can simply listen, in a non-judgemental and sympathetic way, and then offer advice which is personally constructive and confirming. You do not have to be a doctor to be able to do this. I believe in the power of talking therapies, self-awareness, personal insight and personally empowering versions of events. I believe in the power of re-framing negative events in ways which create meaning useful to the individual suffering.
Goal-orientated working means focusing less on the individuals internal landscape and more on the practical issues were are working to work out; tenancy issues, benefit issues, work and volunteering activities.
What I have come to accept is the real merit in this method, because it takes the client up and away from all the negative head-stuff which is making them feel bad, and encourages them to think about things which are external and separate from that instead. This is a really valid way of approaching support work, and also of approaching recovery and promoting independence and life-skills within the client.
It is working in the real world- is it working in a way which is practical and takes into consideration time and resource constraints, and also the emotional affect on the support worker of taking on quite so much personal baggage from another person. Now, if I’m entirely honest, these are all the kinds of things I was hoping to be able to overcome whilst working as a support worker. Time and resource constraints were not high on my list of important factors when considering how to work with a client.
So this is the aspect of the learning curve which has been the really bitter pill to swallow– because the reality of the situation is that I will likely never be able to help someone in this way I wanted to be able to help. We don’t work with clients for long enough to really overcome the entrenched, highly complicated and deep rooted issues that they walk through our doors with. We are not psychotherapists, and people’s issues are far more complex than we would want to believe.
The way to achieve best practise, in my mind, is to try and always be sympathetic- but to remain focused on the practical support that we can offer, because obviously these issues (benefit and tenancy management), will also go a long way to relieving suffering, preventing homelessness and promoting resilience and independence.
It’s been tough to accept, but I know that I need to internalise this realisation in a much more serious way- in order to prevent me banging my head against multiple brick walls or clinging onto my own ideas and beliefs more fiercely than I accept the facts of the situation at hand.
(Continued in part 4)