Developing Together Social Work  Teaching Partnership

Blog Post: Relationships in Social Work


By Sarah Cave, Practice Educator Development Worker, Developing Together Social Work Teaching Partnership

I am the last person in my team to write a blog. This is primarily because I have never written one before, but also because I have never quite been sure what to write about. However, following the BASW conference last Friday, I now know!

The topic of the conference was the importance of relationships in Social Work. The two sessions in the morning were presented by people with experience of services. They were both incredibly powerful reminders for me of the importance of positive relationships.

One of the reasons this resonated with me so much, was because I have always known that building relationships is the key; but in my recent practice I could see that this had got a bit lost and I was disappointed in myself. I recognised that after 4 years of working in adult social care, the pressures of financial constraints, and undertaking extraordinary amounts of Care Act Assessments to ensure review figures hit targets, had gradually worn away at me. This pressure had made me doubt my conviction about the importance of positive relationships, because in trying to develop these, I was failing at producing the amount of assessments necessary.

This reflection epitomised what both sessions had highlighted – that the relationships the speakers built with unqualified staff had a much more positive impact on their lives than when qualified social workers started getting involved.

“What changes when social workers gain their qualification?” I asked my lecturer colleagues. “Fear and Organisation culture” was their response.

So let’s think about this:

Fear – is this because suddenly, once qualified, it is our responsibility – we are accountable if anything goes wrong? And if it does, the first thing that will be checked is if processes have been followed / was the risk assessment robust?

Organisation Culture – is this about the acceptance of the completely unachievable workloads that social workers so often carry, with the constant threat of Ofsted/CQC inspections – (again) will they be checking that all the processes have been followed?

I’m sure there are lots of reasons, but looking at the above two, the common theme is the significance placed on processes and forms. This is, of course, crucial, but it seems to me, if we are to listen to those with experience of using our services, equal importance needs to be given to developing positive relationships with our families, children and adults, and not just filling in all the boxes of the necessary forms. 

So how can social workers feel empowered to do this?

For me, a large part of this is about management at all levels. Managers need to hold on to their own social work values, and ensure that the importance of positive relationships is at the forefront of their minds, giving staff time and support to both develop relationships and manage risk. And this is no mean feat. From my own (albeit fairly brief) experience of management in adult social care, holding onto social work values and being a manager can be conflictual, as there are so many competing pressures.

I know there is no ‘quick fix’, but I think as a social work profession we have to think very carefully about what we are doing, if the more positive impact experienced by people using services is as a result of work with our unqualified colleagues.

I would like to end with a quote by Maya Angelou, used by Ian Lawrence at the BASW conference. Let’s always remember this:

people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou