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Fiona Kivett

3 Key lessons about relationships in social work

Here at IMPOWER we recognise the vital role social workers play in achieving better outcomes for individuals and on World Social Work Day we have an extra reason to celebrate social work (and shout about great practice). This year’s theme is ‘promoting the importance of human relationships’ and, for me, it is an opportunity to reflect on human interactions and relationships in social work.

Recent IMPOWER analysis with one local authority highlighted social isolation as a contributing factor in demand for social care for adults with a learning disability in 52% of long-term cases. Sometimes a response is to offer day services or personal assistants but providing additional services will not solve this issue, particularly as such services may not be located within local communities. Instead what is needed is a greater emphasis on working with individual service users, to maximise opportunities for them to connect with and contribute to their wider community, build social networks and develop relationships.

At IMPOWER we are using our EDGEWORK approach to support councils to respond to this challenge in new ways. During the last few months I have been working with social workers in one local authority to embed a strengths-based approach in review conversations for people with learning disabilities. We have explored strengths-based language, co-designed tools to support participation, practiced conversations, explored community-based support and captured impact. During a three-week period, social workers held strengths-based conversations with 16 clients, with 74% resulting in changes or setting new goals for independent lives. This included training and support to travel more independently, going to the shops, accessing community-based activities and building new friendships.

This approach has been underpinned by peer support for professionals delivering at the frontline, creating a safe space to bring social workers together for reflection and to share their expertise and knowledge. Relationships (with individuals, their family, carers and networks) has been a key theme within these discussions.

From this work, I have taken away some key lessons about relationships in social work – between social workers and individuals, with families and the community.

  • Invest in building trusted relationships between practitioners and individuals. Recognise and address any power imbalance and put the individual at the centre and in control. Think about the environment beforehand, find a way to communicate, ask the right questions, develop tools to support participation and remove any barriers to participation which might prevent this.
  • Recognise the importance of families, friends and carers. Be collaborative, involving families and carers from the start. Allow time to listen to and work with them to understand their needs and motivations.
  • Start with ambitions and draw on wider networks and the community. Explore the things that matter to individuals, foster creativity and help individuals tap into local resources and activities to make them a reality.

If you would like to know more about how we work with councils to develop stronger relationships at the frontline, please get in touch.

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