World Social Work Day: promoting community and environmental sustainability

Tomorrow is World Social Work Day (WSWD), and this year the focus is on community sustainability. The theme is inspired by the third pillar of the Global Agenda for Social Work, which was created in 2010 to integrate the aims and aspirations of social workers across the world. It stresses the important role of social workers in prompting sustainable communities and environmentally sensitive development.

This includes:

  • working closely with other partner agencies – including those beyond social work – to create communities of practice, particularly in relation to environmental sustainability;
  • promoting community capacity building, through environmentally friendly and sustainable projects, where possible; and
  • responding to environmental challenges, including helping communities to be resilient to and recover from environmental and natural disasters, as well as in relation to “human disasters” which includes refugee families fleeing persecution or war.

But how does this play out in everyday practice?

Supporting integration

Across the world, social workers are being asked to address ‘human disasters’ as they seek to support and integrate refugee families fleeing persecution and war in conflict zones. Some of the biggest challenges for social workers today relate to refugee and displaced communities. As well as dealing with the effects of trauma, they also help integrate refugees successfully into existing communities and build bridges with others to promote cohesion, reduce tensions and help them make positive contributions to society. Social workers also have a responsibility to encourage all members of the community to help with this support and integration process.

However, in a UK context, supporting people to make positive contributions to their community is not limited to refugee families. It also relates to intergenerational work, valuing the experience of older people, developing the skills of vulnerable adults, or encouraging children to feel connected to a place and community so that they might better take care of it as they grow up.

Supporting sustainability

The role of social workers in supporting the sustainability agenda may not be so obvious. The ability of social workers to adapt and respond to the needs of communities which are experiencing environmental sustainability issues is of growing importance in developing countries. However, social workers in the UK can still contribute to this element of the global social work agenda.

This includes behaving in a way that recognises the need to protect and enhance the natural environment. In practice, this may mean social work departments having policies on going paperless where possible, recycling in offices, and reducing the use of cars, or car sharing (for frontline social workers, however, this is often impractical).

Social work practice can also consider how it supports sustainable social development outcomes within a community, and maintaining personal CPD, education and training levels to reflect this. There should also, as always, be an attempt to share best practice and learn from others.

Final thoughts

This World Social Work Day, let’s take a moment to reflect on the positive contributions that social work professionals are making to their communities as well as to the lives of individuals. It’s also a chance to consider what the future might hold for the profession and how it can continue to promote and support the growth and development of sustainable communities.

If you would like to follow the events going on to mark World Social Work Day or, share any of your own stories you can do so on twitter using the hashtag #WSWD17.

We regularly write on social work topics. Check out some of our previous articles:

And follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Season’s readings: looking back on a year of blogging, and looking forward to 2016

Time Passing shutterstock_88253254

We’ve almost reached the turn of the year, a good moment to pause and reflect on what the Knowledge Exchange has been blogging about in 2015.

We’ve covered a wide range of subject areas, from education to the arts, health to housing. With over 160 blog posts since January, there’s too much to fully consider in this short review, but some of our featured blog posts are worth revisiting.

 A global view of digital government

Throughout the year, Steven McGinty has been taking readers on a world tour of technology, reporting on the application by and impact of digital technologies on governments at home and abroad.

In January, Steven looked at the potential and pitfalls of data sharing and linking up UK government databases. Later in the year, he highlighted public sector tech trends, including using technology to open up government and improve democracy. And Steven has also reported on digital government developments in Estonia, Norway and Singapore.

 Planning matters

The Knowledge Exchange started life as The Planning Exchange, and we still maintain a strong interest in planning issues.

In May, Morwen Johnson highlighted the increasing interest in contemporary strategic planning as a delivery solution to complex problems. Morwen noted that an RTPI policy paper had advocated a strengthening of strategic planning to secure greater co-operation with respect to development and to facilitate city regions.

In September, Rebecca Jackson reported from the annual Scottish Planning and Environmental Law conference in Edinburgh, which covered the theme of “the changing landscape of planning”.

 Eventful posts

Rebecca joined the Knowledge Exchange in August 2015 and immediately hit the ground blogging. She’s been out and about reporting from events and covering topics as diverse as co-production in the criminal system, child neglect, wellbeing and resilience, and citizenship and identity.

 Learning to work, working to learn

Rebecca also reported from the Scottish Learning Festival, and during the year our blog has featured a number of other posts on education, skills, training and employment.

In July, Heather Cameron looked at the continuing challenge of enabling young people from disadvantaged areas to access higher education.

Stacey Dingwall described the issues raised in a report from the UK Commission for Education and Skills, which suggested that young people are facing a ‘postcode lottery’ when searching for work experience. And in September, Stacey highlighted our Knowledge Exchange briefing which focused on the crucial importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills in the UK.

Stacey’s post was also a useful reminder that, as well as blogging, we also gather evidence, data and research to produce briefings on key topics, such as change management, green infrastructure and new approaches to housing later in life.

 Save the day

Throughout the year, we’ve tried to observe significant days in the calendar by blogging on related topics.

  • To mark International Women’s Day, Donna Gardiner wrote about the barriers facing female entrepreneurs
  • On the International Day of Older Persons, I blogged about the economic opportunities of ageing
  • On World Food Day, I highlighted the problem of food waste, and what’s being done to tackle it

Special themes

We also blogged on three selected themes in 2015: cities; elections; and evidence-based policies:

  • In March Rebecca Riley considered the role of cities in the knowledge economy, while in April Morwen reported from a conference looking at smart cities in a critical light.
  • Rebecca also highlighted the importance of research and evidence for policy makers in a Knowledge Exchange White Paper, published in March.
  • In May, Stacey described her experience as part of the Idox Elections team in helping to deliver the company’s postal vote management system for the UK general election.

The year to come

Much of 2016 is still a calendar of unforeseen events. But some dates have been pencilled into the diary, and may well feature in the Knowledge Exchange blog next year.

Elections will take place on 5 May for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Greater London Assembly and for 128 local authorities in England. On the same day, there will be mayoral elections in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford and elections for Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales.

In the summer, the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will no doubt generate discussion on the legacy of London 2012.

Among the selected themes we’ll be focusing on in 2016 are cities and digital transformation. Meanwhile, ongoing issues are likely to continue making the news: the struggle facing local authorities to meet increasing demands with fewer resources; further devolution of powers from central government; climate change; health and social care integration; and the affordable housing shortage.

And it’s looking likely that by this time next year the people of the UK will have made their decision on whether to remain in or leave the European Union.

We’ll be scrutinising these and other developments, trying to make sense of them and keeping our readers posted on new research and evidence.

From all of us in the Knowledge Exchange, we wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Child neglect, wellbeing and resilience – adopting an art’s based approach (Seminar highlights)

upset boy against a wall

By Rebecca Jackson

‘Neglect is a complex issue but art can help, so let it’. That was one of the key messages to come out of a seminar session held at Strathclyde University last week.

The seminar is one of a series of four, looking at how arts-based techniques can be used in research and practice when interacting with neglected children. The session also considered how the arts can be used as a tool to promote resilience among vulnerable and neglected children by building self esteem, a sense of self worth, providing an outlet for emotion and supporting self efficacy.

The interactive seminar drew on a range of topics and sources. Academics from the Universities of Stirling and Dundee led the discussions and delegates included practitioners from psychology, social work, education and social research.

Lack of value placed on the arts

Some general themes to emerge from discussions included:

  • The lack of value placed on the arts as a form of assessment and interaction with children in a professional setting.
  • The over-emphasis on outcomes and funding which means that more ‘fun’ resources and methods are overlooked for more cost or time efficient ones, rather than the ones which work best for each individual child.
  • Children quite easily and quite quickly, between the ages of 10-14 go from being ‘neglected, vulnerable children’ in the eyes of society to ‘problem or troublesome children’.
  • The need to clarify what is meant by successful outcomes and the sense that outcomes have to be quantifiable, with one participant commenting:

    “I am required to produce reports and look for evidence in facts and figures, when in reality, getting a child who has suffered neglect to feel self-worth, or to say they have had fun could and should be a major indicator of the success of a scheme. That is difficult to evidence to other people who don’t know that child.”

Discussions from the day were captured by a graphic designer (Rebecca Jackson, 2015)

Discussions from the day were captured by a graphic designer (Rebecca Jackson, 2015)

Benefits of arts-based interventions

Some of the more art-specific observations from those who use it in their practice highlighted:

  • That removing children from feeling as though they are the centre of attention can be helpful in engaging them – baking, building things from Lego and drawing or colouring can help with this:

    “One-to-one interviews can be very intimidating for children, often they can cause them to close up more as they feel there is pressure and judgement from adults. Blending art activities with standard practice creates a better environment for a child and addresses some of that power imbalance which they are often acutely aware of.”

  • Distancing the child from their story, through analogies, creative writing or storytelling can also help them to open up:

    “I will quite often say, if you had a friend who…. or if there was a character in a story who…. how do you think they would feel? what would you tell them to do? who could they talk to about it? Just giving that little bit of hypothetical distance can really help a child to open up. The story creates an extra level of safety for them”

  • Resources are a big barrier:

    “I work in an office – that’s where I hold my meetings – where can I find a space to bake a cake with a child?”

  • Making full use of the community and its resources – and having the guts to ask for something if you want it:

    “You will be surprised and amazed by people’s generosity if you just ask”

  • Relationships will always be key, and arts-based practice can help encourage and shorten the time it takes for practitioners to build these relationships.

    “Quite often it is one key person, who engages with that child, who the child trusts and feels safe and comfortable around, that can make the biggest difference to that child’s progress”

Future questions

This seminar session was designed as a way to introduce arts based practices in cases of child neglect and vulnerable children and to identify some of the key strategic barriers to its use in practice in Scotland (and the UK more widely). In many ways it raised more questions than it answered.

The subsequent sessions, to be held in early 2016 at the University of Strathclyde and the University of Stirling, will use these discussions to address how academics, practitioners and policy-makers can create a strong collective voice to encourage training in, and promotion of, arts-based practice in Scotland.

Scottish Universities Insight Institute seminar series:Child neglect, wellbeing and resilience: adopting an arts-based approach

Seminar 1: Research methodologies and arts based approaches to resilience and neglect (26th October 2015)

Who was speaking?

  • Professor Brigid Daniel, School of Applied Social Studies, University of Stirling
  • Cheryl Burgess, Research Fellow, University of Stirling
  • Jane Scott, Business Development, WithScotland
  • Dr Susan Elsley, Independent Researcher and associate of CRFR at University of Edinburgh
  • Professor Divya Jindal-Snape, Education, Inclusion and Life Transitions, University of Dundee

Why resilience matters for social workers

By Heather Cameron

A recent storyline in the BBC’s Silent Witness programme graphically illustrated the emotional pressures that social workers operate under. Troublingly, this was not a case of dramatic license. Stress is damaging the ability of a significant number of social workers to do their job. This is often compounded by a lack of workplace support, particularly with regard to difficult cases such as child abuse.

In a recent Community Care survey of more than 2,000 frontline staff and managers, more than 80% of social workers felt stress is affecting their ability to do their job.

A third were trying to cope with stress by using alcohol, while 17% are using prescription drugs such as anti-depressants. Despite almost all respondents (97%) stating they were moderately or very stressed, only 16% said they had received any training or guidance on how to deal with work-related stress, and less than a third had been offered access to workplace counselling.

Social workers need high levels of confidence and resilience when dealing with safeguarding issues. And these are worrying findings, given the serious emotional impact more challenging cases can have.

Lack of support

New research for the NSPCC in six local authorities, highlights that social workers are finding it difficult to deal with the emotional impact of child sex abuse cases.

Adequate support and supervision is key to moderating the negative impacts of stress and burnout. The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) – introduced in September 2012 – provides a support framework for newly qualified social workers. However, the research found supervision for experienced social workers continues to still be lacking, with many having to find their own informal support networks.

With reports on child abuse a regular occurrence in the media, the public pressure on social workers and other professionals involved in such cases is unlikely to subside. It’s even been suggested that politicians and the press have a common agenda in presenting ‘bad stories’ about social work to the public.

So what can be done?

With nearly 1 in 10 social workers considering leaving their jobs, its clear that addressing stress is a priority. But they are working in an environment where local authority budgets are being cut and the numbers of children subject to child protection plans increased by 12% between March 2013 and March 2014.

Back in 2009 the Laming Report emphasised the need for social workers to “develop the emotional resilience to manage the challenges they will face when dealing with potentially difficult families”. Research at the University of Bedfordshire has explored what resilience means in practice, and how individual resilience can be improved. It suggests that resilience can be learned, and is supported by reflective practice and self-awareness.

Active listening by line managers or supervisors can be an effective tool for identifying and dealing with the onset of stress within their team. And qualitative research in Scotland suggested that with the right support, social workers can retain the sense that their work is worthwhile and satisfying.

Let’s hope that Community Care’s next annual survey of social workers will show an improvement in work-related stress.


Further reading

Some resources may only be available to Idox Information Service members.

‘Heads must roll’? Emotional politics, the press and the death of Baby P, IN British Journal of Social Work, Vol 44 No 6 Sep 2014, pp1637-1653

Social Work Watch: inside an average day in social work – how social work staff support and protect people, against all the odds (2014). Unison

‘Bouncing back?’ personal representations of resilience of student and experienced social workers, IN Practice: Social Work in Action, Vol 25 No 5 Dec 2013

Inquiry into the state of social work report (2013). British Association of Social Workers