Social work should be about helping people yet, bogged down in bureaucracy, it has lost its way. Jan Little shows how the human givens approach can put it back on track.
“It's performance management, these days.” “It’s crisis work.” “It’s case management — we don’t actually work with people any more.” “It’s all paperwork.” “It’s telling people what they can’t have.”
These were social workers’ responses when I asked them, at a training day, how they would define social work. But when I asked them why they had come into social work, they immediately replied, “To help people”. And then one added sheepishly, “But wasn’t that naēve!”
I don’t think it was naēve. For me, helping people is still what social work is all about, and unfortunately, under the burden of bureaucracy and paperwork, we’ve lost sight of the fact that ‘helping’ is the social work goal.
I am not saying that social work is over-controlled. Indeed, I strongly believe that social work needs to be evidence based and accountable, which inevitably means a certain amount of record keeping. However, tickbox forms completed in duplicate may show we visited a particular family at a particular time and we actually saw the child in question, but they are
absolutely no help in determining whether what we did on the visit was in any way effective.
The Department of Health’s new Assessment Framework for Children in Need 2000 looked as if it might be a step forward, providing, for the first time, a consistent approach to collating information and assessing families’ needs. The framework assesses the child’s developmental needs; the carers’ ability to parent and the needs of the family arising from poverty, poor housing, and other aspects of environment. All of this information is analysed and provides a sound basis for decision making and action.
However, completing the required assessment records entails making tickbox responses and, unfortunately, with tickbox tools, there is always the risk of their being misused and completed mechanically. Some social workers feel that completing the assessment records consumes too much time because so much information is required. This is particularly so in areas where the child care team may comprise only a couple of social workers, owing to difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff. We do need a consistent child focused framework for collecting information, but we don’t want it failing because of difficulties using it as intended.
The overall emphasis on performance management, monitored by targets and performance indicators etc. serves only to separate social work from its core function: to help. In fact, a problem being masked by the plethora of performance management data is that we aren’t at all clear about what we are trying to achieve by them. Performance indicators, such as how many children there are at any one time on the child protection register, are
meaningless on their own. Similarly, targets are more likely to concern the completion of work within a certain time scale, rather than meeting a predetermined, highly specific and measurable outcome agreed in each individual case. For instance, all too often the ‘goal’ in child care is to ‘provide support’, instead of ‘providing support to achieve exactly what and how’.
What needs are not being met?
This is where the human givens approach can be so useful to social work, and I would like to see its adoption widely within it. It encompasses within a very simple framework the diversity of social dilemmas that human beings face: what needs are not being met?
We know that social workers are very often involved in helping people meet their basic physical needs — for sufficient food, for warmth, for a roof over their heads. Similarly, they have a role to play in helping people meet their emotional needs, which, if unmet, lead to stress and distress. It is probably universally accepted that all humans need love, intimacy and self-esteem — but these cannot be handed over on a plate.
However, the human givens model identifies other less well recognised emotional needs which can be worked with more directly and which, when fulfilled, automatically increase self esteem and the ability to love and be loved. These givens are the need to give and receive attention, the need for community or connection (beyond the immediate family), the need for autonomy or a degree of control, the need for purpose or meaning, and the need for flow (utter absorption in a worthwhile activity).
When I say to social workers, “For me, social work is about helping people to get their physical and emotional needs met”, they respond at once. It is as if, amid all the rushing about and form filling and working against the clock, they remember “Ah yes! That’s what I’m supposed to be doing all this for.” They can instantly see the relevance of the approach for tackling the problems of the people they work with.
A young person just taken into care, for instance, may well resort to negative behaviour in desperation to meet their need for attention (or, if they have been neglected at home, may have resorted to this already). They may well feel all meaning has been stripped from their lives, if they perceive themselves as rejected by their family and cut adrift, and may search to replace it through negative sources such as promiscuous sex, drugs or alcohol. They clearly lose community in the event of their sudden removal from the home where they lived and the connections they have made in their locality. They have no control over what has happened to them. And talents or interests which they previously enjoyed (flow) may somehow fall by the wayside in the transition from home to care.
When an individual’s position is viewed in this way, the question becomes “How can we get these needs met more positively, using the resources that the individual has?” The answers do not have to be very complicated.
In one care home, Conrad, a young man with mental health problems was discovered to have remarkable gymnastic abilities. That simple discovery and follow-through has led to all five of his emotional needs being met to some extent – and to a diminution of his psychological difficulties. The gymnastics class that he started to attend was in the community, instantly widening his horizons beyond the children’s unit where he lived. Quite quickly, he was helping the instructor in class, thus meeting his need for the giving and receiving of attention. As a result of all this, he had purpose in his life, regardless of whatever had happened within his family. And he had flow and a sense of control over his life again.
Angela, a young teenager taken into care, was found to have an ability to play the violin masterfully. It took a long time for this ability to emerge because, in the painful time of her move into care, she had become depressed and unmotivated. Although such an ability may eventually be noted in the records completed for children in care, applying the human givens framework as soon as a young person arrives in care, and keeping it always in mind, enables effective solutions to be reached and set in motion much more quickly. (Conrad and Angela were both truly gifted, but all young people have resources we can use, if we take the time to find them.)
Return to top READ ON >>
© Human Givens Publishing Limited and Jan Little
JAN LITTLE is a freelance trainer and consultant with over 20 years' experience in social work, including 10 in social work management. She has worked for both the statutory and voluntary sectors in social work education, research and development. Although she specialises in children's services, she has also worked in adult services both as a fieldworker and a consultant. She currently provides a counselling service to several local authorities for employees experiencing work related stress.
This article was originally entitled 'How to put the heart back into social work' and first published in Volume 9, No. 4 of the Human Givens journal, and then subsequently as an appendix to the book:
Human Givens: A new approach to emotional health and clear thinking
Return to top