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The weight of the world: social workers’ experiences of social suffering

Long-standing concerns around the bureaucratic and often unhelpful nature of children and families social work were brought to a head in Prof Eileen Munro’s (2011) review of child protection. Munro called for a shift in local authority cultures, away from compliance towards a greater focus on learning.

With colleagues, I recently completed a project involving social work academics and children and families social workers from neighbouring local authorities to try and facilitate such a shift in child protection cultures. In so doing, our work offered insights into existing practice cultures.

One strand of our work together involved reflective learning groups in which social workers introduced cases they were working on for group discussion. It quickly became apparent from these discussions that everyday social work practice is, to use Arlie Hochschild’s (1979) term ‘emotional labour.’

The strength of emotion presented in the groups evoked a picture of what the French social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu, in his collaborative book, The Weight of the World (2012) identifies as ‘social suffering’, whereby the everyday world of public service workers reflects the frustrations of a neo-liberal state that has abandoned principles of social welfare. Bourdieu argues that those who work within a neo-liberal state experience ‘all kinds of ordinary suffering (la petite misère)’, the everyday emotions that result from being confronted with clients’ distress.

Bourdieu also suggests that the left hand of the state (those who come face-to-face with poverty and its effects) has the sense that the right hand (the technocrats and managers) no longer knows, or, worse, no longer really wants to know what the left hand does. At any rate, it does not want to pay for it. This was evident from one of the participants in our group who felt that: ‘there’s never any acknowledgement that there aren’t enough resources – managers hide behind ‘scientific’ decisions (i.e. eligibility criteria) not to allocate resources.’

Organisational cultures were identified as being driven by fear. Participants described workplace cultures driven by fear and of resultant, risk averse practices. We were told of management directives, which resulted in distress and harm for a young mother; of disproportionate police-led responses to child protection allegations, which were more damaging to children than any harm they were purported to address. Being party to such practices, either through their place in the organisational hierarchy or because following procedure had just become so ‘taken for granted’, created additional distress for practitioners.

If this was an individual we’d be thinking about anxiety, depression – are we an anxious, depressed profession?

The centrality of fear in organisational cultures led one participant to question: ‘we’re hearing of fear, blame, helplessness, hopelessness – if this was an individual we’d be thinking about anxiety, depression – are we an anxious, depressed profession?’

This state of affairs was accentuated, according to more experienced workers, by what they thought to be a lack of political awareness among some more recent recruits to social work who were coming into the profession expecting to work within the system and not to challenge it, whereas more experienced workers may have started at a time where expectations were to challenge the system where it needed to be challenged.

But, it was not all hopeless. Bourdieu’s wider sociological project allows for some agency on the part of actors within a given field. The contradictions of neo-liberalism open up, he argues, a margin of manoeuvre, which can be used to de-stabilise bureaucratic structures and regulations and, in so doing, to defend bureaucracy against itself.

Indeed, we were told of small acts of resistance, involving social workers going the extra mile with clients. One participant drew on an Orwellian image from 1984, ‘where he’s got that little space where the camera doesn’t see him just behind the wall’, to identify spaces to practise more creatively beyond the managerial gaze.

The conclusion that might be drawn from our project is around the importance of recognising the emotional dimensions of social work in managerial climates, where the focus is an instrumental one of completing the task and not making mistakes. Offering workers opportunities to deconstruct current practice in order to better understand and thus to destabilise prevailing ways of thinking and practicing opens up possibilities of changing such cultures.

Featured image credit: Hard times by Nik Shuliahin. Public domain via Unsplash.

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