Joining the digital revolution: social workers’ use of digital media

In January 2018, NHS digital published a report, which highlighted the accessibility and availability of digital platforms to help social workers with their job role. The research, which was compiled from survey data, sought to understand not only how social work could be supported through the use of IT and digital platforms, but also to assess the current level of usage and understanding of digital technologies among the current workforce. While more than half of survey respondents said they had access to a smart phone as part of their role, far fewer were actually able to access case notes and other necessary documents digitally from outside the office.

The survey found there was an appetite for greater and better use of digital media in day-to-day work, which practitioners felt would not only improve their ability to work more flexibly but could also be used to forge better relationships with people who use services. In some instances, respondents to the survey felt improved use of digital media may provide a way to communicate more effectively with those who had previously been unwilling to engage, particularly in relation to social work with young people. The research found that digital technology was used in a range of ways to build and manage positive relationships, particularly with service users, including:

  • communicating with them to gather specific data (as part of assessment);
  • delivering interventions (such as self-guided therapy or telecare); and
  • supporting team work (peer support and online supervision)

Questions around the use of social media

Earlier research around the use of digital media in social care more generally found that it is used in a variety of capacities, such as storing and maintaining records, communications and day-to-day tasks such as booking appointments and scheduling in visits. However, the use of digital technologies by social workers can at times extend beyond simply maintaining records and scheduling visits. Many felt that while digital media in some ways makes their job easier, in other ways it can add to the stress of an already difficult job role.

A lot of the anxiety concerning digital technologies centres around social media. In the most positive of ways, it can be a core platform to allow service users to communicate, and make the social work team appear more accessible to people who may feel uneasy communicating in more formal ways. However, significant challenges around ethics and practice remain. Repeated instances of social workers being reprimanded have made some social workers wary of using social media platforms. In September 2017 HCPC published guidance which encourages practitioners to continue to use social media, but to seek advice and help if they are ever unsure. The guidance suggested that social media, if used responsibly, could support professionals to raise the profile of the profession and network with others nationally and internationally.

Supporting confidentiality and security

For many social workers and social work supervisors many of the challenges around using digital media centre on the necessity for confidentiality and security of information. While much of social work practice within offices is digitised with regard to record and case file keeping and report writing, security issues concerning remote access to files is one of the major challenges. In many cases until digital security can be assured, it will be difficult for social workers to work fully remotely and flexibly without some travel back to the office. GDPR also raises some interesting questions for the profession with regards to storing and accessing data.

An opportunity to improve information sharing and partnership working

It is well recognised that the use of digital media provides an opportunity to improve efficiency and partnership working within social work. If used effectively and supported well, it can allow information to be stored, shared and accessed across a range of different services, which can be particularly useful for increased health and social care integration. However, challenges in practice remain – including the ability of social workers to remotely access notes and information, the need to align working and IT systems, and the ability to access and read data in a number of formats across a number of devices. Research stresses the importance of risk management and appropriate training for staff so that they feel comfortable and confident using media platforms.

A welcome change in the profession?

For many within the profession, the rise of digital platforms as a way to engage with service users and provide increased support and flexibility for social workers themselves has been a positive development. It is a great leveller and can encourage service users who feel comfortable to engage in a much more transparent way with social workers. However, NHS Digital research shows that there are still significant challenges. Overcoming these to successfully integrate digital platforms and interfaces into social work practice has the potential to revolutionise not only how social workers engage with service users, but how they themselves conduct their work. Improved collaboration with other services, increased flexibility, and increased capacity for completing and recording continuing professional development and training to improve practice are just some of the potential fruits of social work’s digital revolution.


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Digital technology in social work practice

World Social Work Day: promoting community and sustainability

Learning from mistakes: reflective learning in social work

No one likes to talk about their own mistakes. They are an inevitable part of the human condition, highlight our flaws, inabilities and limitations and can place a spotlight on what happens when resources and people are stretched too thinly.

In certain professions, including frontline social work, mistakes – however innocent or unintentional – can have potentially life-changing effects for service users. Keeping them to a minimum is of paramount importance. And it’s important that if mistakes have been made that they are not only rectified but also analysed to consider what went wrong, and what can be done to avoid the same thing happening again. For social workers the stakes could not be much higher – people’s lives are in the balance. So how can social workers not only recognise, reduce and rectify mistakes, but also use them as learning opportunities to improve performance and decision making in the future?

Making the most of our mistakes

It is important that practitioners and their managers know which strategies are most effective for them and their team when it comes to extracting valuable insight from mistakes. This only comes from having a strong and secure working relationship, where people feel able to talk openly and reveal insecurities and inadequacies, as well as recognising the positives within their practice.

Working out the correct strategies for each occasion and for each team member will take time. However, some tools and strategies include:

  • learning how to generate effective questions to explore not only how a mistake happened, but why and what steps can be taken to prevent it from happening in the future
  • adopting a strengths-based approach, rather than a deficit-based approach to staff and any mistakes they made
  • reflective frameworks that can be formally incorporated into everyday practice
  • encouraging staff to find a “critical friend” to offer an external perspective and extend personal reflective capacity
  • encouraging staff to take up reflective writing (in everyday life, not just at work) including journals and diary entries
  • training staff on creative models of reflection and on how to give and receive constructive feedback
  • finding ways to feed back to an entire organisation regarding the lessons learned from mistakes and how they can shape practice in the future.

The reflective cycle

One of the traditional models of reflection for social workers is Gibbs’ cycle of reflection (1988).

Among social workers, reflective practice is often promoted. Personal experience and participation should be seen as a positive and an opportunity to develop new skills, learning or approaches. Reflection should be focused on professional errors, asking questions like “why”; “what went wrong”; and “what did I do wrong.”

Reflection can happen at three levels:

  • personal
  • one-to-one with another person (a supervisor, colleague or family member)
  • in groups (at organisational level)

It can be useful to reflect at all levels, where possible, in order to get the most out of the experience and have the biggest impact with regard to what can be learnt from mistakes and how this can be passed to others to avoid them making the same ones.

Taking and giving constructive feedback

Although it may be uncomfortable at the time, social workers and people from other professions should welcome feedback from colleagues and service users as they can be powerful sources to drive professional growth. However, it is important to distinguish constructive feedback from blame. Highlighting helpful advice and using it in a constructive way is not the same as finger pointing and fault picking, and managers must develop the ability to distinguish between the two.

Final thoughts

Mistakes happen, and although we don’t like to talk about them, they can sometimes provide some of the most useful insight for learning and improvement within an organisation. Beyond the organisational level, personal reflection on practice and taking time to consider how you approach certain situations is a vital aspect of the self-aware, continual improvement that social workers must strive towards, even if they don’t always meet the exacting standards all of the time.


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also find the following article of interest:

Information Service members can also view some of our latest database additions, including the book Reflective practice and learning from mistakes in social work.

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Who am I? The importance of life story books for looked after children

paper family on hand

By Heather Cameron

Every adopted child in the UK should have a life story book – an account of a child’s life in words, pictures and documents containing information on the child’s birth family, care placements and reasons for their adoption – which is given to them and their new family when preparing for a permanent placement.

Local authorities have a statutory duty to create life story books for all adopted children, providing them with a sense of identity and understanding of their early life before adoption. They are a well-established practice in the UK and most local authorities provide guidance on preparing them.

However, research has found that the quality of life story books varies hugely.

Variation in quality

The research, conducted by the Voluntary Adoption Agency, Coram, in collaboration with the University of Bristol, focused on adopters’ perspectives on their children’s life storybooks, which it identified as lacking from the academic literature.

Although adopters welcomed the idea of life story books, they were critical of their execution. And despite accounts of positive experiences, there was a broad consensus that:

  • many books were of poor quality;
  • children had been poorly prepared to explore their histories;
  • adoption professionals and agencies did not seem to prioritise life storybooks; and
  • adopters felt poorly prepared in how to use and update life storybooks with their children.

While 40% of adoptive parents said their books were ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, a third said they were ‘terrible’.

Issues were raised around lack of communication, opportunity to provide input and what was included in the books. One adopter said “We did not have the opportunity to discuss but what I would have said was this is rubbish – all of it is rubbish”. Another said “I can never show my daughter hers because there is stuff in there that I don’t ever what her to see”.

Another theme to emerge was an excessive focus on the birth family, foster family or social worker rather than the child, and the use of inappropriate language.

For those who regarded their books in a positive light, they believed the story was told well, was age appropriate and honest, and didn’t construct a ‘fairy tale’ that would give the child an unrealistic view.

Invaluable

For adopted children, life story books can be key to providing details of their history and background, providing continuity in their life histories and preparing them for a permanent placement.

Often, they are the only thing an adopted child has by way of personal, accurate and detailed information on their past. As one mother commented on the importance of birth photos, “It’s all they have left of their own babyhood”.

Done well, they can be invaluable, as described by one adopter:

‘a good quality life storybook builds a bridge back to that huge part of her that we didn’t see and it is her main link to her past’

It has therefore been argued that life story work should be prioritised and appropriate support provided.

Ingredients for success

Coram’s research highlighted several key things for successful life story work; one being having staff dedicated to life story work.

Bournemouth has been highlighted as an example of good practice for their life story work. Their separate adoption department appointed a dedicated family support practitioner to take on responsibility for the life story books for children adopted in Bournemouth.

In 2012, the council received an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted and was named as joint adoption service of the year.

Also highlighted by the research, was that gaps in the narrative were not helpful, and support for adopters is paramount, as is training for social workers.

To improve the quality of life story work across the board, Coram’s report urges adoption agencies to make considerably better use of life story books and invest in improved training for professionals, while monitoring the quality of books produced and providing better access to support and guidance for adopters to engage in such important work with their children over time.

Bournemouth illustrates the importance of doing life story work well. And as the research concludes, “linking a child’s past and present is crucial ‘bridging’ work in enabling permanence in placements”.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous articles on kinship carers and the value of foster care.

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Overworked and under-resourced – ‘mission impossible’ for social workers?

By Heather Cameron

A year on from my previous blog on the emotional pressures facing social workers, have the headlines improved any?

Going by a new Guardian survey of social workers, it would seem that the answer is a resounding no.

The Social Lives Survey revealed that while the majority of social workers enjoy their job, two-thirds say they can’t focus on what really matters and only a quarter feel their workload is manageable. Almost 80% work overtime every day, and 86% don’t get paid for doing so.

Heavy and increasingly complex caseloads was the most common reason given for stress among social workers in last year’s Community Care survey.

Unmanageable caseloads

Unison surveyed social work staff from across the UK about their work at the end of a day in April 2014. Just over half (52%) said their caseload size was affected by covering for staff shortages and nearly three quarters highlighted that there was no formal system in place to help manage their caseloads and ensure they are at a safe level. A significant minority (42%) noted that they left work with serious concerns, the main reason for which was being unable to complete paperwork, followed by being unable to speak to other agencies or professionals involved.

Similarly, in May 2012 the British Association of Social Workers published the findings of its State of social work survey which indicated that 77% of the social workers surveyed said their caseloads were unmanageable. One child protection social worker said “the team I work in currently is working at dangerous caseload levels in terms of child protection work”.

The emotional impact of the challenges of social work were highlighted by a number of respondents, as one mental health social worker described:

It makes me so sad that this job seems only to be possible if you sacrifice your own health and wellbeing

The subsequent inquiry into the state of social work report by the All Parliamentary Working Group at the end of 2013 also emphasised the extent of stress among social workers who are overloaded and under-resourced. It heard from a local authority social worker who said:

 “the more cases we have, the more corners we have to cut, and the more corners we have to cut the more we have significant numbers of children for whom we haven’t had the time to do a thorough assessment”.

Another social worker said that as a result of budget cuts, “the conditions for child-centred practice and safe working are being eroded”.

Impact of austerity

A little over two years on from the inquiry, it would seem there is no let up on the impact of austerity on the social work profession.

A huge majority (92%) of social workers who took part in the Guardian’s survey highlighted that spending cuts are affecting services and putting more pressure on care professionals. And it was felt by 88% of respondents that social work isn’t as high on the political agenda as other public services.

With further cuts to hit local authorities from April this year, following the government’s announcement of a 6.7% funding cut for councils, things may get worse before they get better.

To help offset the impact on social care, local authorities will be able to raise an extra £2 billion through a 2% Council Tax precept and the £1.5 billion Better Care Fund.

Nevertheless, it has been argued that this will not be enough to address the immediate social care crisis or to prevent an estimated £3.5 billion funding shortfall by the end of the decade.

‘Bad press’

As well as spending cuts increasing pressure on social workers, the negative perception of the profession was also raised by the Guardian’s survey:

“The government and media need to stop portraying social workers as child-snatchers and do-gooders. They should sometimes focus on the lives we have saved and positively changed.”

It was suggested that newspapers should also focus on the pressures put on social workers rather than always on when things go wrong, and the government should be supportive of the role and address the lack of recognition and support at the national level.

Way forward?

Perhaps the rest of the UK should be looking to Wales for good practice, where the happiest social workers reside.

In Wales there are lower caseloads, more support from managers and better integration with health. According to one social worker, “it’s a better place to be a social worker. Social work is recognised and valued; in England I don’t think it is.”

Social services in Wales have also been more protected from cuts than elsewhere. And you don’t see the same negative language about social workers in Wales as you do in some parts of the media in England, according to the Welsh Government’s minister for Health and Social Services.


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

Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read Heather’s other article on engaging fathers with social work.

Fathers and social services – is there a failure to engage?

paper family on handBy Heather Cameron

With failure to effectively engage with fathers repeatedly highlighted in serious case reviews over the years, it is worrying to hear that such failure is still evident within the social work profession.

Failure to engage

Just last week, a High Court judge heavily criticised children’s social workers for their “unprofessional” and “reprehensible” case building against a father whose child was up for adoption. The case involved making a decision on whether to return a two-year-old girl to her father and three siblings or allow her to be adopted by the couple she had lived with for the previous 16 months.

The judgement stated that the social workers’ evidence expressed opinions that they were not qualified to make, describing it as ‘psychobabble’. The judge also noted that this evidence was ‘entirely at odds’ with the evidence of qualified professionals and that the local authority gave insufficient weight to the observations of professionals working with the family.

The social workers were also criticised for continually referencing a “clearly out of date” parenting assessment completed in 2012, stating that this “still apparently colours their view of the father”.

It would seem that there could be deep-seated barriers within the social work profession preventing effective engagement with fathers.

Barriers

In fact, there has been much research around the barriers to fathers’ engagement.

It has been widely suggested that an inability among social workers to believe that a father has changed following past negative behaviour, and traditional assumptions and stereotypes about gender roles, have long played a role in preventing engagement.

An article published in 2009 which explored the representation of fathers in the social work literature argued that a pervasive and influential negative attitude towards fathers is widespread in the social work field.

More recently, a feasibility study highlighted that an analysis of serious case reviews conducted from April 2005 to March 2007 across England found a tendency for professionals to adopt ‘rigid’ or ‘fixed’ thinking, with fathers labelled as either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, leading to attributions as to their reliability and trustworthiness. The influence of mothers (which can be good or bad), traditional approaches by the profession in relation to gender and parenting, and fathers being reluctant clients were also cited as barriers.

Such barriers have also been demonstrated by men’s experiences. A study which examined the experiences of fathers involved with statutory social work in Scotland highlighted that respondents reported feeling marginalised from child protection processes and facing barriers to contact with their children. Some men had experienced false accusations of sexual abuse, resulting in long-term involvement with child protection professionals; and some of the respondents felt that they were regarded with suspicion by professionals, with statutory conditions still being applied even after criminal charges had been dropped.

With such long-standing perceptions and approaches within the profession, it would be ill-advised to think that these can be fixed overnight. Nevertheless, there are signs that attitudes are changing.

Changing attitudes

A recent blog by Senior Evaluation Officer at the NSPCC, Nicola McConnell, acknowledges these tendencies within the profession but is confident attitudes are beginning to change. She highlights that only recently had she noticed that on most occasions she had not been interviewing ‘parents’ but almost exclusively mothers:

although services aim to work with parents, for a range of reasons including social organisation and gender expectations, services for children really tend to work with mothers.”

McConnell argues that this can lead to ‘flawed practice’ and discusses how professionals can improve their work with fathers through early engagement and taking a non-judgemental approach.

Facilitators of engagement have been consistently emphasised across the research:

  • Early identification and involvement of fathers;
  • Taking a proactive approach to engagement;
  • Making services relevant to fathers.

And the benefits of effective engagement have also been widely acknowledged. Numerous studies have emphasised the importance of engaging fathers for both children’s outcomes and risk management.

It has recently been highlighted that children with positively involved fathers tend to:

  • Make better friendships with better-adjusted children;
  • Have fewer behaviour problems;
  • Be less involved in criminality and substance abuse;
  • Do better at school;
  • Have greater capacity for empathy;
  • Have higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction.

Good practice

A project highlighted in a recent article in Children and Young People Now which aimed to increase social workers’ engagement with fathers and father figures has had positive results. Following the intervention at one local authority:

  • the percentage of fathers involved in their child’s core assessment rose from 47% to 82%;
  • the percentage of fathers invited to the initial case conference rose from 72% to 90%;
  • and the percentage of fathers whose involvement with the child was discussed at the initial case conference rose from 78% to 100%.

Social workers reported improvements in their practice, including motivating fathers to change problematic behaviour, engaging abusive men in discussion about their behaviour and assessing fathers’ positive qualities. It was also reported that some children had been placed with their fathers instead of being taken into care as a result of their new approach.

So progress is being made, illustrating that it is possible for engagement barriers to be overcome.


 

The Idox Information Service can give you access to further research and good practice on social care services – to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading

Caring Dads: Safer Children – interim evaluation report (2014, NSPCC)

Engaging fathers in child welfare services: a narrative review of recent research evidence, IN Child and Family Social Work, Vol 17 No 2 May 2012, pp160-169

Fathers’ involvement in children’s services: exploring local and national issues in Moorlandstown, IN British Journal of Social Work, Vol 42 No 3 Apr 2012, pp500-518

Don’t ignore the father, IN Community Care, No 1818 13 May 2010, pp16-17

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service

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

Low-level child neglect is a high-stakes issue

Upset boy against a wall

Guest blog by Emily Buchanan, Research Manager, NFER

Earlier this year, an Action for Children report highlighted that neglect is the most common form of child abuse in the UK today.

Up to one in 10 children across the UK suffers from neglect; it is the most frequent reason for a child protection referral, and it features in 60 per cent of serious case reviews into the death or serious injury of a child. So, how is our research seeking to support those tirelessly campaigning to end child neglect? Continue reading