Job Perceptions of Social Workers

  • Moira Ollis

    Student thesis: Master's Thesis


    The main aim of this study is to discover how social workers perceive their jobs and how their perceptions differ at various career levels. The need for a scientific analysis of the work done by social workers is highlighted by the current national debate on education and training in social work. In particular, there is a need to discover whether social workers' perceptions of their work reflect the assumptions and beliefs upon which new patterns of professional qualifying education and training are being based.

    There is a paucity of empirical studies on the jobs of community social workers. Most of the work so far produced is of a general prescriptive nature (see Goldberg and Wharburton (1979) and BASW (1977) as examples). The need for further study of social work activity has been recognised.

    The difficulties encountered in analysing what people actually do in their jobs have been well documented. MrCormack (1976) has noted that the typical essay description of job activities is particularly inadequate in the case of jobs that deal primarily with decision making and communication activities such as managerial, supervisory, professional and technical jobs.

    In terms of job analysis, there has probably been more research into managerial jobs than any other and it may be possible to learn something about the study of complex activity, like social work, from the research into managerial work. In any case, social work itself obviously contains managerial components - they are inherent for example, in casework and case load management.

    However, it has been noted that most of the work on job and task analysis that has been produced has been based on job activity studies, for example, Mintzberg (1973) "The Nature of Managerial Work" and Stewart (1982) "Choices for the Manager". Recently, the importance of the ways in which people perceive their jobs (a phenomenological, as opposed to positivist, approach) is becoming more and more recognised. This study utilizes Repertory Grid, a relatively new, but increasingly used, way of exploring job perceptions (Stewart and Stewart, 1981).

    The study of social work is further complicated by the occupation's continued struggle for recognition as a profession. It has been argued that "professionals" are reluctant to examine what they are doing (see Hill, 1980) and the choice of methodology for the study of such jobs needs to take account of this view.
    The methodology of this research incorporates phenomenological and positivist approaches. There is a major emphasis on the phenomenological approach and the Repertory Grid is used as the main research tool. The Grid has particular advantages in minimising interviewer bias and it enables a mental map to be drawn in a way which makes it easier to measure change and to make comparisons between people. The technique has high face validity for interviewees and has been shown to help them to find a vocabulary with which to express themselves in areas which had previously been impoverished.
    In addition, a structured interview, based on a questionnaire, provides an opportunity to explore further some of the issues arising out of tlie Repertory Grid analysis and some of the other factors which affect Social Workers in their jobs.

    A number of areas are explored in this study:
    * The job perceptions of social workers at each career level; how they compare and contrast
    * The job analysis implications
    * The professional/managerial implications
    * The organisational structure/process implications
    * The training implications

    It was found that the language used by social workers to describe their activity tends to be general. This may have contributed to the already documented problems encountered in definingthe social work task (Hill 1980). It may, also, have contributed to the apparent commonality of perceptions, across career groups, that emerge in this study.

    Other major findings of the study are:
    *social workers with practitioner roles tend to perceive their jobs as being on two main dimentsions, client activity and organisational or administrative activity
    * all groups share the common tendency to discriminate, as a major trend, between people centred activity and organisational activity
    * the job perceptions that emerge do not reflect more recent descriptions of the wider, inter-agency, community, political oriented role of social workers. Practitioner groups, generally tend to have a highly individualistic, one to one, client focus
    * social work practitioner groups also tend to identify their objectives in terms of individual client services
    * the service planning objectives of team leaders and supervising "senior" social workers tend to be frustrated by the demands of their staff supervision roles. They have no direct client focus in their perceptions
    * there are similarities between the characteristics of managerial work and the characteristics of social work but little evidence of a focus on management activity amongst any of the groups
    * the language used to describe the more managerial aspects of the job is the language of a peer professional relationship. Absent, generally, are terms like coordination, control, long term planning, objective setting and performance evaluation the perceptions of some workers reflect differences in organisational structures. In particular perceptions tend to be coloured by narrowness of specialism.
    * there is a notable lack of team focus in the Repertory Grid analysis of all groups. But the team is commonly identified, in interview, as a factor which makes the job easier. Evidence suggests that the team is associated more with support than with service planning or delivery.
    * there is little evidence of a focus on the external environment of the Social Services Department other than in the narrow client sense.
    * practitioner groups perceive a need for more training in client related activities, for example, counselling, interviewing and assessment.
    * there is a more general perceived need for training in management and organisational activities like public speaking, chairing meetings, negotiation and liaison.
    * all groups feel, generally, insufficiently trained for what they do.
    * there is evidence to suggest that social work managers need to review their processes for work allocation to ensure the most effective match of skill and experience with complexity of work.
    Date of AwardJan 1988
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • Polytechnic of Wales

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