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Days in the Lives of Social Workers (book review)

Posted: February 08 2021

Student & staff projects, Social Work

Interested in Social Work and want to learn more about the subject? The book reviews written by our Social Work students and staff help you identify the best literature to advance your learning.

This week:

  • Title: Days in the Lives of Social Workers. 62 Professionals Tell “Real Life” Stories from Social Work Practice.
  • Author: Linda May Grobman
  • ISBN-13: 978-1929109845
  • Publication: The New Social Worker Press; 5th ed. edition (22 May 2019), Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, USA
  • Extent: 452 pages excluding index
  • Reviewed by: by Gabrielle Smith, MA social work student, Brunel University London (Originally published online in Social Work Education: The International Journal on 02 Dec 2020: https://doi.org/10.1080/02615479.2020.1852663)

‘Days in the lives of Social Workers’ is an exploration of the diversity, humours and challenges of the social work profession. Through 62 narratives, insight is provided into the scope and perspectives of the many specialisations and career opportunities for prospective or current social workers.

Grobman presents not only the differences found in social work, but also the similarities that unite these professionals on a daily basis. Although at times frustrating and heartbreaking, social workers agree on this being a rewarding career.

Several threads run through these narratives, most prominently, being the importance of developing collaborative and trusting relationships with service users, their community, and other professionals in different disciplines. This enables person centred and relational approaches that recognise political, lifestyle and cultural difference and individuality, which encourages service users to participate in decision making. A lack of integration and relationship building within communities can lead to a divisiveness between service users and providers and other professionals. Many narratives explore the difficulties of working in different cultural and social environments. For example, one social worker in a prison, observes that during mealtimes, professionals will sit on one end of the room and prisoners on the other. Thus, breaking these hierarchies and immersing into a community can be challenging, but an important part of being able to understand the experiences of certain groups. Another social worker, in the police department describes feeling like a “guest in the world of law enforcement” (p.248), which highlights the interdisciplinary nature of social work and how even amongst other professionals, there can be a lack of understanding. Another social worker in adventure-based practice, explores the advantages of informal relationships with service users and emphasises how the simplicity of conversations can help individuals open up; whilst washing the dishes, cooking or doing an activity, as the conversation enters the personal realm and becomes disassociated with the professional, formal environment, that can be restrictive. Language can also impede relationship building as one social worker explores working in immigration and the frustrations of not being able to understand one another. Therefore, social, cultural, and professional boundaries exist in social work that can impede relationship building.

As a role that works with people in society, social work is constantly changing, particularly in an increasingly globalised world. Therefore, social workers must be adaptive within and across time. For example, progressions in technology have transformed the way relationships are built with service users, such as an expansion of internet groups that rely solely on virtual relationships. There has also been an increase of online programs, which perhaps will become pertinent in social work, during the pandemic period of social isolation. Grobman dedicates two parts to social work in older adults and end of life, as this field is more in demand in recent times, and a hugely diverse sector. These narratives capture the themes of an ageing population, widespread immigration and changing family dynamics that contribute to evolving perceptions and social priorities.

A few social workers wrote about the idea of ‘hope’ and ‘hopelessness’ in their role, with these feelings being attributed to themselves and to service users. One narrative even refers to themselves as the ‘Hope Dealer’ - a play on words for a social worker who specialises in the opioid crisis and feels a duty to provide hope to others (p.201). This reflects the oxymoronic and complex nature of social work, covering both ends of the spectrum as something positive and negative. Therefore, learning to accept and normalise feelings of hopelessness is important in these roles, at the same time as valorising the role social workers play in communities. Grobman concludes by re-emphasising the value of self-care, something that many social workers feel guilty about as there is a tendency to adopt a “service over self-mentality” (p.371)

The global differences of social work explored in the last chapter highlight the limitations of this book. Only 1 out of 62 narratives explores social work in the UK and the rest are mostly in the US, which provides a limited understanding of social work for future UK graduates. Social work in the US can be misleading for UK prospective social workers are it is far more therapy based. Regardless, as Grobman reiterates throughout, a social worker is defined by “who I am, not just what I do” (p.423). The importance rests on the values of social workers including truth, transparency, and neutrality.

A look into the different roles and possibilities in social work is valuable, as this career is notoriously difficult to define. Grobman continues to add to the mosaic of social work, to truly reflect the core values, roles, and changes, which become increasingly instrumental in daily practices and continue to evolve with changing social, political, and geographical climates.