Health and social care - student stories
Pauline Bonner, Social Worker
Why did you choose social work?
Through coming into contact with social workers when I was physically ill following the birth of twins: I was given an assessment. This sparked an initial interest in me but I thought about it over the next two years before starting to do anything.
What was your career path before social work?
I messed about at school and got one GCE O level, which I regretted straight away. I started work as a clerk typist then became a PA. I then did some temporary teaching in a further education college before having my children. A couple of years after being ill I began to gain some experience in the social care area.
What experience did you gain in order to get into social work?
I worked in a number of posts including residential care, as a nursing auxiliary, an occupational therapy assistant, an unqualified social worker and also as a review officer. The roles gradually became more challenging as I gained experience and I covered most areas of social care with the exception of fostering and adoption, I enjoyed all these roles.
I studied with the OU alongside working in these areas and qualified as a social worker. I continued to study and also gained an MA in women's studies. The OU has been the best domain for me and along with my employer has been extremely supportive. I have a physical disability and have been able to access PC support. The OU has been flexible when I have needed it to be.
Skills you use the most
You need to be assertive and be able to negotiate on behalf of your users,this requires you to be able to build rapport with a wide range of people, from professionals and managers to users, carers, and their families plus other care workers. Effective analysis and assessment of a situation are crucial. In interviewing users you often need to have a sense of humour, but need at the same time to be professional and be prepared to challenge. The sheer volume of work requires you to manage your time and then be reliable, to do something when you say you will. As a manager I also need to be able to support and enable my staff.
Best and worst parts of the job
The downside is that you cannot predict when a crisis is going to happen, so one of the hardest parts of the job is coping with working outside ordinary office hours. Understaffing, lack of resources plus large caseloads all place additional pressures on staff.
However, mental health work is very energising! There is a lot of job satisfaction – you develop some great relationships, people appreciate your help and you can see how you are empowering someone in their life. Mental health covers a very broad spectrum of people and circumstances, including eating disorders, psychoses and manias. No two days are the same.
What has been your social work career path and where do you see yourself in the future?
I have progressed very quickly to where I am. From my initial post as a social worker in a mental health team, I became a senior practitioner after just over a year. This was related to the amount of experience I had gained previously. After another couple of years, I am now a team manager in mental health. I am an approved social worker and have been accredited with full post-qualifying status, which shows that I have a breadth of experience across social care.
I see myself within my current post for a while. There is a large process of change management ahead in the integration of the healthcare trust and social services, which is all part of the government's agenda for multifunctional services. The challenge lies in trying to maintain standards and hitting the mark in providing a quality service.
I am still a practising social worker even though I am a manager. The higher up you go the more distanced you become from the service users but I'd like to keep that contact for as long as I can.
I am an associate lecturer (AL) for the OU social work qualification and would like to have more responsibility as an area leader. I enjoy lecturing and the time I spend with the students. The OU keeps me up to date with current developments. My practice and OU teaching complement each other really well; I am able to provide examples from my experiences as a practitioner when telling students about a theory or ideology, and knowing what planned or current developments are happening from perhaps a legal aspect or new research help to inform the work that I do in the field. I would like do more with the OU and become a team leader where I would look after a group of ALs.
I am also involved to a small extent in independent work, providing reports and assessments for tribunals, which again is informed by my other experiences. I only have limited time for this.
I don't have specific future plans but I am still firmly committed to practice and have a lot to do in my current job, raising standards and developing my team. I would love to do some research although there are financial considerations to take into account there.
What advice would you give to someone wanting to get into social work?
Understand the basics. There is nothing detrimental about starting at the bottom! My knowledge of the practical aspects of care plans has been so beneficial when making realistic assessments. In fact other colleagues with less practical experience have often needed to ask me for advice on timescales and implications of basic activities like bathing, dressing and lifting when developing care plans and commissioning services to meet identified needs.
Although I am a specialist in mental health, knowing and understanding other areas of social care have meant that I can see things from other perspectives, whether it be the user or carer.
In terms of OU study: recognise your own capacity and limits. If you need some time to rest – do it and pick up again when you can.