Social workers: Do-gooders or doing good?

Social worker at desk
Image caption Albert said "social workers are the Swiss Army knife of public servants, sometimes the janitor, sometimes a verbal punchbag, often the last resort"

Who would want to be a social worker? Blamed and shamed by the media when things go wrong and often perceived as "do-gooders or clueless busybodies", the profession remains a mystery to many.

The BBC spent a day with one of Bristol's 195 adult care social workers to find out more about their work, from supporting people with learning difficulties or battling addictions to helping dementia and stroke patients.

Albert, not his real name, is part of a community team covering a substantial chunk of the city.

On average, he and his colleagues each have a caseload of about 20 people.

"What did you expect?" when I mention that his Mohican and piercings are not the stereotypical look of a social worker. "A man in a fading tweed jacket with corduroy patches on the sleeves?

"A useless, don't-have-a-clue, busybody who just wants to put you and your mum in a care home, and then forget?

"If I'm honest, I hope people will only think about us like that if they've been fortunate enough never to need our help and support."

According to the Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS) it is an "important time" for adult social care services in England.

It says there is "not enough" money to go around, and the situation is forecast to get even worse, with a £4.3bn funding gap expected by 2020.

ADASS has urged politicians to seriously consider how society can meet the "significant growth in the volume and complexity of needs faced by generations that rightly expect to lead longer more fulfilled lives".

"I get to meet people when they are vulnerable, when they've lost capacity to make decisions, when they are disorientated and lost," said Albert.

"Then I get to hear their amazing stories, and meet some incredible families, I get to be part of their lives for a brief moment and I try to help."

He explained that each client has different needs - from mental health to physical challenges, from coping with being terminally ill to trying to support your once fit and healthy loved ones as they get older.

Image caption Recovering alcoholic Simon Madeley (facing camera) described his social worker as a "rational pair of ears"

One of Albert's clients is recovering alcoholic Simon Madeley. Albert managed to secure the funding for his rehab at Chandos House in Bristol.

Mr Madeley said he had turned to alcohol as a "quick fix" after losing his business and experiencing the breakdown of his family.

He said he had ended up in a coma and "nearly died twice" from his addiction.

Albert put him "at ease straightaway", though, and had helped him to turn his life around.

"This is when social services come into their own," he said. "They are that voice of reason. It's nice to have someone impartial, someone independent to talk to."

Albert said part of his role was to be a trusted guide for the people he helps.

He said: "Who does what? What is the law? What help can I get? How does it work? How much will it cost? What am I going to do now?

"As a social worker we have to be able to answer all these questions, be able to find the services that can help, and understand complex and constantly adapting laws."

Image caption Albert said "not everything we do is nice, we have to help people make hard decisions"

Another client, an elderly man with vascular dementia, now lives in a care home. Albert has to help him to manage a complicated legal process involving the end of a previous tenancy.

During the visit, Albert sits down with him and puts a pile of letters on the table. He shows him some of the post which has been delivered to his previous address.

Albert said: "To be a good social worker, we have to embrace the chaos of life, we have to understand people, respect people and be honest about what we can do to help.

Where does the money go?


spent in Bristol on adult social care in 2013-14, including

  • £73.9m on older people, including those with mental health problems

  • £43m on under-65s with mental health problems

  • £13.4m on under-65s with a physical disability or sensory impairment

  • £10m on under-65s with mental health problems

"When life falls apart, our colleagues in the NHS will work hard to make you better, whilst we as social workers will try to ensure you are living life as independently as possible.

"We try and find a way into the world of people who live chaotic, dangerous lifestyles. We ask difficult questions when they need to be asked. We risk being unpopular to ensure the right thing happens for the people we work with."

Bristol's estimated population


  • 27,999 contacted the city's social care services in 2013-14

  • 11,374 made use of its services in the same year

  • 6,209 had a physical disability or were frail

  • 1,333 were carers

He said adult care social workers do not have the "mind-blowing pressures" of child care social workers, but often "our workload is frenetic, saturated in worry and pushes us to the limits of mental endurance".

"We have to ensure the person we work with is at the centre of everything we do. We have to respect their capacity to make decisions for themselves and help them make choices in their best interests if they lack the capacity to do so independently.

"Occasionally, all we are is a little pinprick of light in a tumultuous and bleak world, sometimes we can make things a whole lot better, more often than not we relieve the pressure for a short while.

"Are we always perfect? No. But please remember we are working with real people and their needs, emotions, their quirks, history, wishes, hopes and fears. Our working environment equates to modern jazz to the untrained ear.

"We set boundaries, protect public funds, manage care provision, meet your needs, reduce risk of offending, support your voice, ensure your rights, work for you, enable you, and genuinely try to help you and your mum."

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