Social Workers Complain, but Does Anyone Listen?

 

I was on placement for my graduate social work degree and I had a little bit more time on my hands than I normally do. My caseload was lighter, the agency was giving me time to learn, critically reflect and practice my new knowledge. I was the acting family program coordinator for a trauma and addiction center near Toronto. If I had some free time, I used it to connect with my peers from school and other acquaintances in the field, to gain as much knowledge and wisdom as I could.

One of the main contacts I spoke to at length was a social worker from Calgary named Allie, someone twenty years in the field of clinical social work. Allie has a ton of knowledge and practice experience and she helped me a great deal. I considered her a mentor and fortunately I had the time to listen to her.

Many of our conversations revolved around the organization in which she practiced social work. While there were many positives, there were many things that Allie had problems with: her direct manager- who was not a social worker- had recently taken a hard-line position with Allie related to confidentiality and a court subpoena for one of Allie’s client records; a co-worker of hers had recently got walked off the job after they had practiced together for 8 years, and no follow-up was deliberately offered to Allie; perhaps most importantly, her management rarely took her opinions and complaints about such things very seriously. Allie had not been heard on these issues much at all. If she did bring her problems up, she was basically ignored.

Unlike other work environments, understanding employee complaints is critical to the success of organizations where clinical social work occurs. There is little room for either supervisors or organizations to ignore the grumblings of social workers, the way they might in an accounting office or on a construction site. Social worker complaints deserve to be heard differently. Why? Because connectivity and empathy are the currencies of many clinical social work environments, and not listening to social workers is a profound kind of disconnection within the system. Where the stated goal of an organization is to help people transform their lives, a culture of connection must prevail. That culture can be inspired by listening to social workers complain.

This can be hard for an organization or manager. Complaints from social workers often seem to be directed at them. This is especially true if managers or supervisors view social worker complaints from the perspective of workplaces where employees are asked to fill a straightforward role. Clinical social workers’ bread and butter, however, are the circular, sometimes messy, organic, two-steps-forward-one-step-back world of helping people change. In such an environment, social worker complaints are an opportunity to construct solutions.

Allie did not want to remain embedded in the negativity and problems that sometimes characterized our discussions. She wanted to feel better about her work- she wanted solutions. Solution-focused therapy and its unique view of human change, benefited me when I reflected on Allie, especially insofar as I was already studying it as an intervention. Solution-focused therapist and pioneer Steve de Shazer used the concept of language games to discuss factors guiding human change (de Shazer, 2000). Language games are customary uses of language that change depending on the social or psychological context in which the language is used. Customary language with friends on Friday night is very different than the customary language of the workplace Monday morning. Solution-focused therapists work to change the language games that people play- especially about their emotional problems- to realize that there are exceptions to rules:

“When clients talk about emotions as problems, they are following the rules of problem-focused language games. Shifting to a solution-focused language game will provide clients with new “emotion rules” to follow… (de Shazer, 2000 p.17)”

The language game of employee complaints is pervasive in more straightforward workplaces: what bosses do, pay scales, being overlooked for promotions etc. In such environs, these games may not present significant opportunities for change. The language game of complaining in the social work environment, on the other hand, has real therapeutic potential. It is an opportunity- with some guidance from others- for social workers to reinforce their strengths, to recall times when there were exceptions to problems, and to receive direct compliments from their superiors (de shazer, 2000).

If you have ever worked for a boss in any workplace who was less than generous with their compliments about your hard work, you will recognize immediately how simple and powerful compliments can be. For complaining social workers, compliments and other structured attempts at changing the games of workplace language can be magic.

Managers and organizations cannot be blamed. The larger paradigm of psychotherapy- in fact much of our culture- approaches human emotions as if they were problematic. While it’s ok for social workers to help clients with problems, it’s quite another for a manager to wade into the emotional depths behind social workers’ complaints. This may be partly why Allie’s manager is reluctant to do so: It’s not a normal language game or custom to discuss problematic emotions in a workplace. But what if the custom changed? What if organizations changed how they approached problems, complaints and employee emotions entirely?

Say we have a client who is fearful of intimacy and they experience a lack of commitment. From a traditional psychoanalytic perspective, exploring the root cause (fear of intimacy) would be important. But not necessarily for a solution-focused therapist, who might ask if there are other reasons- aside from fear of intimacy- why a client is experiencing a lack of commitment? Maybe they have yet to meet someone trustworthy. Maybe they have little time to engage in relationships right now due to work or school. Similarly, Allie may have many other reasons as well- aside from the things she voices in her complaints- which may be causing her distress. Some of these may point to strengths. Maybe one of her new clients has been particularly traumatized and Allie has been working extra hard to gain ground in their therapy; maybe the funding structure in Calgary just shrunk a little and two of her friends just got laid off. Would helping Allie see these other options, open up more opportunities for her and her organization to discuss change (de Shazer, 2000)?

Furthermore, social workers are allowed to complain about their jobs within the rules or customs of their particular workplaces. They do not, however, customarily complain because of their clients- at least not overtly. Clients are held in the highest esteem in most clinical social work environments. However, helping people with serious problems all day long is inherently stressful. Without supervision, it can even be harmful to the practitioner. Yet planned discussions about how social workers are affected often take a very low order of priority, depending on where they work (this is changing in a positive way for sure). Are social workers regularly given the freedom within their organizational culture to discuss how clients affect them? This is different territory- it is riskier and requires more vulnerability- than case discussions about what is happening with clients.

Social workers are also regularly distressed about macro level forces- the institutions and ideologies that surround our clients and ourselves. Discussions about such things are often eerily absent from social work environments. If the subject does come up, well-meaning social work managers often say that these forces are, “out of our control.” In fact, that is the casual response almost every single time that I have seen someone bring up structural forces at a table of social workers and their superiors. It is easy to forget, however, that social workers are trained to view the macro as within their sphere of influence, and ignoring these forces comes at the peril of social workers. To be told that macro level forces are off the table for discussion undermines social workers’ unique perspective and extensive training. The result is a constant conflict between social workers’ progressive, macro lens, and the highly individualized culture that surrounds clients, organizations and social workers.

Even the cultures of healthcare or mental healthcare often discouragingly replicate the competition, individualism and entitlement that also characterize macro level problems. It is difficult for social workers to find a voice regarding the problems inherent in the system in which they work. That system- like an understandably defensive manager dealing with an employee complaint- repels it. Yet social workers that remain without a voice about large-scale social phenomenon will present with internalized hopelessness or negativity, since it is a reality they are trained to witness. An organizations that knows that such concerns are regularly dismissed or inadvertently ignored, and which invites discourse on these subjects, can speak right to the heart and soul of a complaining social worker.

In other words, social workers that complain about their workplaces are not only complaining about their jobs. Just as often, they are expressing vicarious stress or trauma that has a client-based or system-wide origin. Social workers voice pain and dissonance and they need to be heard through a different lens- a different language game. This is also how trauma informed systems operate: within the paradigm of clinical supervision, which builds relationships with clinicians and encourages them to engage in their own transformations- somewhat like clinical social workers do with clients. Being kind, invitational and generous seem to be key elements. Deferring the directive approach, which is always available if necessary. Supervisory strategies that may work on a construction site or in an accounting office are not necessarily appropriate within the more complex social reality of helping guide human change. This is also why borrowing structures and managerial practices from the business world and implanting them into fields such as mental healthcare are sometimes fraught with problems.

There is nothing inherently harmful in complaining. The problem lies when social workers and their organizations believe wholeheartedly that the workplace is the cause of their complaining. Viewed rather as one of many possible motives, complaining can actually be an opportunity to change.

 

 

 

  1. Miller, G., de Shazer, S. (2000). Emotions in solution-focused therapy: a re-examination. Family Process. Spring; 39(1):5-23; discussion 25-8.

 

 

 

 

 

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