Blog #4 Are you doing social work?

Are you doing social work?

I have met a lot of social workers around the country over the last year. A lot of social workers, in a lot of different roles, working for a variety of organisations tell me that they are not really doing social work. An awful lot of the time social workers are involved with very clunky, time consuming, administrative or straight out data entry work. They are frustrated and bored. They have spent 4 years completing a professional qualification and have ended up doing basic administration work that takes them away from their social work.

Other social workers tell me they are often doing work that is not social work – work that could be / should be done by other staff, that is not using their social work skills and education. They spend a lot of time seeing people to “see if social work input is needed”!! What!!! We don’t ask other professionals to see someone to see if they need input! Doctors don’t have to go and knock on people’s doors and say “excuse me, I just want to do an assessment and work out if you need medical treatment”.

Spending time doing administration that is not social work related and assessing people to see if they need social work input means that many social workers don’t have time to do “real” social work. They don’t get to do real, in-depth, complex work because all of their time is taken up with other work. And because they don’t get time to do complex or in-depth work, they don’t get asked to do it next time – it either gets left undone, or someone else tries to pick it up. And then no one sees what we can and should be doing.

Is there a place for social work assistants in either of these scenarios? How would it be if you had someone to do all your data entry? How about if you had someone who would transport clients to WINZ, appointments, home etc – which are often activities social workers are asked to do. What about working with a client who needs help completing their benefit application forms – is that a social work activity or could it be carried out by an assistant? Or completing a biopsychosocial assessment with a client when there is no indication that social work input is required, or when your plan or assessment will not effect the care plan or outcome for the client?

Most people don’t mind sitting down and talking about what has happened to bring them to where they are today. Simply talking with an accepting and receptive person can be beneficial. Where do you draw the line though? How do you decide what to spend time doing? Do you do the straightforward assessments and write up the notes, which means you can see lots of people; or do you ask for referrals which truly need the input of someone who has knowledge of the legislation involved in the work, understands the skills required to build relationships with clients and whānau and which will result in greater autonomy for the client and whānau?

Our clients often need help, support or advice the first time they do something: filling and reviewing an application form, planning how to get to an appointment or the supermarket, what to say when they are asking for more information or to advocate for themselves. Are we doing good social work if we have to provide the same service to the same client time after time? Our first ethic is “Promote independence for clients”.

If we have had a client referred to us, and there is a clear need for social work input, spending the time to complete a biopsychosocial assessment can be part of the process of developing a relationship which will lead to positive change for the person we are working with. It is the foundation for what comes next. If there is not reason for the referral, what do you do then? I can’t count the number of times I’ve had referrals which have read “please see for social work input”. I’ve pushed back (often) and go into trouble for it (just about every time I pushed back!!) – but I’d like a little more information please!!!

There is also the issue that if we continue to provide services which could be provided by anyone, other professionals don’t see the need for a social worker with a 4 year university education to do the work. We need to be very careful that we do not de-professionalise ourselves and the work that we do.

On the other hand, do you see people who are not social workers doing social work? Do you speak up? If you do, what happens?

What about a non-social worker, who is managing a team of social workers who is telling those social workers what social workers do, what their roles are, the support they should give? What do we do about this?

Speaking up in these examples is part of us claiming our professional identity. Agreeing to do social work, asking for clear referrals which show why the person has been referred to a social worker, and sometimes even turning inappropriate referrals away, is about claiming our social work identity. The more we speak up about it, the more we do social work rather than make-work, the more social work will be recognised. It can be a hard, tough, difficult, emotionally draining job. We all recognise that. We need to be clear to our non-social worker colleagues and the other professionals we work with that social work needs to be done by social workers – with all our training, skills and support. Let’s keep social work a highly respected profession.


  • I work for a large NGO where there is a constant battle to spend sufficient time with clients to deal with complex issues while meeting expectations of Management regarding paper work and meetings. I spend a total of one day a week in endless meetings when I could be working with clients. To get around this I sometimes don’t go to the office at all or only briefly and spend the whole day out. This is not always practical but necessary. My other big struggle is having a Manager with no sense of what social worker’s do and trying to dictate what I should be doing. I am a strong advocate for social work practice and the problems that arise when non-social workers do ‘social work’ but it is also difficult when I am the only one raising the issues.

    • More and more social workers are being managed by people who are not social workers. This means we will often be managing upwards about appropriate duties and activities. Do you have a range of things you tell your manager? It might be useful for us to work out some statements that help managers understand social work – and that help to increase our professional standing. Well done for continuing to do this.

  • Working at an NGO, what ever client comes through the door requires my utmost attention, care and respect, social work I feel is not only about the content but in the application of our skills and knowledge when working with people however they may present. Out training and collection of knowledge places the profession in an ideal space to support people to their best advantage. To start trying to pigeon hole the profession has the prospect of taking the “social” out of the “work”. As a supervisor of students on placement there is always this query about the nature of social work and what is applicable etc, it is a question that i normally put back to the students to reflect on there by hopefully finding out where their hearts and minds are placed regarding social work.

    • I agree that there is always the exception, the time we need to step in and provide services which might not look like social work. I am concerned when I see and hear about social workers spending more of their time on non-social work activities than on social work, or when they do not have time to do social work because they are spending so much time doing administrative or non-social work.

      • geoffrey nauer

        Agree and as identified earlier that is when as social workers, if we are truly cognizant of our roles need to be able to fully advocate within the organization around the requirements of the role and how that may apply when working with our client group. I suppose the intention with the supervision of students at placement level with their reflection around this area, is to harness their growing awareness around the future requirements of social work that they may face and how they may be better placed to negotiate the diverse nature of the work that they could be confronted with.

  • Every interaction is the opportunity to do social work and be a agent of change. Doing tasks that some people would might not see as doing real SW or allowing other people to do as mere office tasks, beacuse they may feel that is of less importance , is where building realtionhsips and doing some amazing grassroots work actually begins when we engage with people/ whanau in different arenas. To enter into peoples lives, its needs to be purposeful, be respectful, cause no harm, have intergrity,(core values of SW).

    NGOS are not well resourced, they may have part time admin staff, or part time team leaders, or work out of satellite offices,and SW do have to step into different shoes at times to fill the gaps. Social workers very creative in how they work and deliver the services needed to support others .

  • Lynda Bell

    I have been asked this many times when I supervised students on placement, My experience is only the statutory sector . I think the short answer is money… or lack of it to hire the support staff required.

    While I have no personal experience of working for an NGO , I have supervised a registered SW who spent 50% of her allotted hours making funding applications.

    • If the reason the social worker was employed was to make those funding applications, wouldn’t that be okay? It would probably be cheaper to get an admin person to do it, but if the position was “Funding Applications, social work”, is that appropriate?
      I think this is an interesting topic to tease out.

  • Yes and no.A lot of good work is done “on the hoof”, not sitting in a room. I regard every contact I have with clients as Social work. There is always something valuable in client contact. Don’t shuffle them off to someone less well trained or qualified. notes and data entry, yes. But client contact no. It’s rather dismissive- “this (quite important for you) event does not rate my superior training and skills).
    But having non-trained “Social Workers” supervising trained people- not appropriate, usually. I know people who have had to leave jobs because they and the supervisor are basically from different planets.

  • Diana

    This is why I love social work in the NGO sector, its non-prescriptive, enabling us to be creative and work more holistically with clients/families utilising social work skills and knowledge across the practical to therapeutic social work continuum.

    • Yes!! I think every social worker should spend some time in an NGO. It’s often a really good chance to learn what is social work and how to articulate what we do.