‘Magic wands and fairy dust’ - the plight of social work leaders
The voice of social work has diminished at strategic partnership level and leaders in the profession are not as part of the conversation as they should be.
That's the conclusion of a major report into Leadership in Social Work published by Iriss, a charity working in the sector in Scotland.
The report engaged focus groups to define social work leadership, examine pressures, assess training and development, and share their thoughts on the future of the profession.
One respondent said: "You need magic wands and fairy dust. There’s not enough money but even if there was enough money, there’s not enough people."
Another warned that "key social work leaders are not as part of the conversations and groups that they should be. This is reflected in sector evidence that has found managers and seniors are sharing the challenges of social workers, at HSCP and strategic levels".
The report found both the frontline reality of social work and internal structures within organisations are impacting leadership potential.
In addition, time pressures and workload stress leave senior leaders having to fill gaps caused by high vacancies and sickness absence.
Pressure is causing senior social workers to worry they don't have time for reflective practice. One respondent said: "Social work is a thinking profession as much as a doing profession and we need to build in time for reflection and critical analysis."
And there are also concerns that "pressures on time and workload inhibit the ability of leaders to exhibit the positive characteristics of good leadership".
Leaders want to be able to lead from a base of social work values, the report found. But "competing challenges" from local and national government, plus financial limitations meant leaders were being moved away from their values base.
One contributor said the profession needs to “build alliances” to ensure its voice is heard while remaining true to its core values. They added: “There is a real risk we could become yes people."
Integrated teams were found to particularly struggle, due to the lack of foundational knowledge of social work among leaders, and the structures of integrated teams could also be challenging.
The report authors said: "The need for senior colleagues to support (NQSWs) is crucial, both in formal areas such as line management and supervision, but also in more informal ways, helping provide direction and encouragement as they begin in their careers.
"A significant amount of that support is strengthened by colleagues who have that body of social work experience, which cannot be provided by those in health or allied health roles."
Social work leadership was seen to be particularly strong when it combined knowledge and experience of practice, and the ability to nurture individuals.
The focus groups agreed leadership needs to be both "practice-based" and "strengths-based" while also adhering to the four behaviours of compassionate leadership: attending, understanding, empathising and helping.
Report authors concluded: "Social work leadership can be viewed as a continuum, and part of the necessary skills development of the workforce, from the start of a worker’s career and throughout.
"Social work leadership is seen and felt, at all levels of the many systems in which social workers operate, such as education, healthcare and criminal justice. The profession needs to be fully equipped to lead now and in the future."