Five steps to better service user engagement for Social Workers

Five steps to better service user engagement for Social Workers

You’d be hard pushed to find evidence that suggests service user engagement isn’t key to successful outcomes. And that’s what social work is all about: creating and supporting positive change.

No matter how proficient a social worker you may be, there will always be occasions when engaging with service users proves to be difficult. Engagement can be particularly challenging if you are working with an involuntary client whose involvement with social workers is mandated by law. When such situations arise, it is important to draw upon the skills and knowledge you have refined over your time in practice or training.

Sometimes the social work system itself presents barriers to effective engagement. Working in what many describe as a bureaucratic quagmire, characterised by obsessive performance monitoring, cash scrimping, dodgy IT systems, pressure for speedy assessments and outcomes, a chronic lack of staff and resources and enough paperwork that rainforest activists are beginning to get concerned, it is hardly surprising that finding time is one of the principle barriers to meaningful user engagement.

So, what can social workers do to build and maintain positive working relationships?


Unsurprisingly, some people who encounter social workers will be untrusting of them. But, can we really blame them? Some media outlets portray the profession as dominated by incompetent buffoons, charged with one of the most important jobs in society.

Social work has been undeservingly (on the whole) dragged through the mud by the media for, well, as long as we can remember. As a consequence, the profession needs to work exceptionally hard to undo the damage done by the mass media.

Here are a few simple steps you can take to build and maintain a trust based working relationship:

  • Be consistent. Set clear expectations and boundaries. You hate it when your manager moves the goal posts; so do service users.
  • Do what you say you’ll do. If you can’t do it, don’t say you will.
  • Acknowledge any mistakes made and address them
  • Go the extra mile, if you can. We suspect you already do. At the same time, don’t burn yourself out.

Clear Communication

According to the Social Care Institute for Excellence, effective communication in social work one of the most important aspects of the job. We won’t bore you with what you already know is important: listening skills, respect, verbal and non-verbal communication. However, here are a few thoughts we have on relationships and communication.

  • Explain the purpose of your visit/intervention and the beginning (e.g. “I’m here today because we received a referral about X. I’d like to talk to you about this. An important part of me being here today is to understand what you think happened.”).
  • Make potential consequences clear. If you are working with a family to get their child back home, make sure they understand what is being asked of them. The service user has control at this point. It’s not a threat, it’s being honest.
  • Leave the social work jargon and acronyms at the office. Or just put them in the bin. They’re unhelpful and make you inaccessible to service users.
  • If you are sending a letter or writing a report, tailor it to the recipient. If you have identified learning difficulties, don’t send them an unnecessarily complicated letter. It’s a waste of paper.

If a service user tells you they have dyslexia, ask them if they would like information in a certain font or colour. It shows you care and demonstrates your willingness to go the extra mile.

  • Communication works both ways. Ensure you understand what your service user has said to you. Clarifying statements and further exploration of responses ensures you understand that person’s point of view. Service users will feel that you’re listening and are interested in their lives. It can also avoid confusion later down the line.

Show people you’re not a robot

Some modern social work systems appear to be forcing social workers to assume the role of a box ticking robot. Showing service users that this is not how you work is an important part of the relationship building process. No one wants to talk to a robot. Well, unless it’s Bender from Futurama.

But seriously, what can social workers do?

  • Share something appropriate about yourself. If you’re working with a young person who likes Nirvana, and you do too, say so. You’re not going to go to a gig together (for two obvious reasons) but common ground may lead to an honest, and more natural, conversation later on.
  • Use empathy, your natural asset. Research suggests that service users who experience empathy can have improved outcomes. Empathetic social workers are also thought to be more effective.
  • It can be a fine line. Be appropriate and remember where the boundaries are.

Get Out There

There was an article in The Guardian last year that (I think) should reflect how modern social work should be done, time pending of course. Grace Shepherd, a social worker in a long term team, shared her positive experiences of, among other things: playing with Legos, eating ice cream, talking about superheroes, feeding chickens, and singing along to Frozen.

Such activities may:

  • Reduce anxiety
  • Facilitate easier and (more) natural conversation
  • Positive distractions from situations
  • Bond relationships

This may not be practical in all situations. Wouldn’t it be great though? In 3 months, you’d have seen every animal in the zoo, know all the lyrics to Disney/Pixar cartoons (confession, neither of us have actually seen Frozen) and service users would probably adore you. What’s the other option – sitting awkwardly across the room from a service user, probing them with personal questions? No, that’s not the paradigm of social work practice.

Acknowledge and Celebrate the Positives

We need to accentuate the positive – not only by identifying and acknowledging the actions and progress made by our service users. A simple acknowledgement of service user progress can go a long way, and progress your working relationship.

And finally, for a profession that has to deploy an enormous range of hard and soft skills, social workers should take greater pride in the amazing work that they do on a daily basis. Professional confidence – but not overconfidence – has been identified as a key factor enhancing the skills that social workers have to offer to service users. Moreover, by positively asserting what social work can – and cannot achieve – the profession can teach others to value the challenging work that they do.

Oliver Beer is a researcher and registered Social Worker. You can follow him on Twitter @owjbeer




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