Professional identity of social work: What is it and why is it important?
17th March 2023
With around 100,000 social workers in England, it can be hard to identify a single professional identity. Professional identity covers everything from the alignment of different roles across the social work sector to general responsibilities, values and ethical standards within the profession.
Being a social worker covers a range of job types, demographics and motivations. You could be a hospital-based social worker helping discharge people to their home, or are focussed on helping young offenders move away from criminal behaviour. Social work covers child protection, helping and supporting disabled children or those with learning difficulties, and working with those who have mental health issues.
Each person going into a social work role has their own – and often very personal – reasons for doing so. And with these diverse roles and motivations comes a disparate and often fractured sense of identity.
But like most professions, there is a professional identity attached to the title of ‘social worker’. What defines this identity and how it is shared across the sector can be hugely important for a number of reasons.
What does professional identity actually mean?
While most people could give their idea of it, it’s actually hard to pin down a definition. A US study found that while professional identity is hugely important in the health sector, an agreed‐upon definition of the term has not been created.
This study felt this lack of clarity risked “inconsistent and unsupported development of professional identity” within social work.
For this article, we’ll consider professional identity as the actions, behaviours, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and ethics associated with social work, and how this is portrayed both within the sector and to people outside the industry.
Why is professional identity so important in social work?
Professional identity is important as a way for social workers to position themselves and their colleagues to the outside world - and to others who they might cross professional paths with. It says: “We are part of a profession, and this is what this profession stands for”.
In social work, it can be even more important due to many people on the outside having preconceived ideas of what a social work professional does and who goes into social work.
It’s also key to get to the core of what social work is – as it covers a variety of roles, requirements and skill sets.
By developing a focused and honest professional identity, social workers can show to the outside world – and those working in related care sectors – what they do, how they do it and, more importantly, why they do it.
It can help with:
- Self-esteem: It’s felt that having a sense of professional identity can help boost personal pride and provide a sense of self-esteem in the many social workers who are often on the end of bad press.
- Retain workers: It can help in the training, hiring and retention of social workers. A study looking at ways to reduce the turnover of social workers in China urged public service agencies to strengthen the professional identity and professional value of social work.
- Adapt quickly: Social workers who are moving from organisation to organisation need to be able to retain their professional identity. Studies found that how someone adapts to new roles depends on whether they identify with the organisation itself (NHS trust, council etc) or the role (social worker, OTC).
- Develop codes of conduct: It can also help industry bodies to create codes of conduct and behavioural guidelines for social workers. A fixed professional identity can be used to craft the rules and regulations of a sector, and help define professional and unprofessional behaviours.
- Reduce burnout: For students coming into the industry, there is an expectation they develop a professional identity through education and into their careers. When they are in their careers, having a strong sense of professional identity could help make them more resilient to stress.
- Develop better working relationships: A British Association of Social Workers (BASW) study concluded that despite social workers having a strong shared character, many identified professionally with non-social work colleagues more, due to a lack of professional identity.
Professional identity in social work trainees and graduates
While students will have an idea of what a social worker professional identity is when they start training, studies show how important a clear identity is during training and when students move into the working world.
These studies show the development of professional identity usually occurs when students acquire and use knowledge in their training and act with “skilled know‐how”. When this occurs, students develop a stronger association with the social contract to care for vulnerable people.
Knowing and encompassing these professional values can help make students less vulnerable to challenging situations within social work. A personal alignment with the goals, values and beliefs associated with being a social worker could help students learn to navigate the various relational dilemmas they encounter in their work.
On top of this, a sense of belonging to a profession led students to try harder in school. The study suggests the intentional teaching of professional identity can help strengthen success, promotes trust and improve outcomes in professional education.
The BASW has now called for a re-think on how social work as a profession is presented to students, with a call for:
- Additional support to help students examine their own sense of identity
- Students to better engage with ideas of identity and belonging, which is believed will help their development as qualified social workers
- Social work students to join their professional body
- Educators to foster students’ sense of professional identity early by motivating and encouraging students to develop professional identity.
- Support for a culture change that sees student social workers understand the importance of belonging to a community of practitioners linked by values, ethics and knowledge and skills.
Developing a professional identity: the general attributes of a social worker
It’s important to distinguish between what’s seen as a professional identity and what a typical social worker might feel, believe or how they act.
While professional identity relates to general sense of ownership for those in a professional industry, some of this comes from the personality of the people working within that industry. So, digging into the key attributes social workers have could provide a foundation for developing a professional identity.
Such key personality traits for social workers can include:
- A general sense of empathy
- Patience with both clients and the social work system itself
- Respect for different lifestyles and a client’s privacy
- Positivity to use a client’s strength to solve problems
- Objectivity and the ability to not put your personal beliefs on to a client’s situation.
Developing a professional identity: Social worker demographics
Again, the physical make-up of a social worker doesn’t alone define their professional identity. But, like the personality traits above, demographic data can give an overview of those working in the industry, which can help shape professional identity.
- 82.6% of social workers in England identify as female and 17.3% identify as male
- The average age of a social worker in England is 45.
- The age group with the fewest social workers was 21-25 (3,641) compared to 13,292 aged 51 to 55.
- After British, the most common nationalities of social workers in England are Zimbabwean and Irish.
- The North East has the highest ratio of social workers to the local population with a ratio of 1 social worker to every 519 people
- South East has the lowest with a ratio of 1 social worker to 685 people.
Developing a professional identity: The defining features of social workers
Social workers are not a singular type of professional worker. They can cover a range of roles, experience and personalities. But, to develop a professional identity we need to look at what the core features are – the core beliefs of an average social worker.
If we consider professional identity as the actions, behaviours, knowledge, skills, values, beliefs and ethics of a social worker, we can then start to create some defining features of a social workers professional identity.
These features were covered in a BASW study into Shaping Social Workers’ Identity.
- Empowering users: 25% of social workers identified most closely with empowering service users and working in partnership with them. These are core values of a social worker that create part of their professional identity.
- Being qualified: For 17%, having a social work qualification was most important part of what defined a social worker.
- Promoting values and respect: One in nine (11%) felt that promoting the social work values and showing respect for diversity mattered most to their sense of professional identity.
- Regulation: Being part of a regulated profession was key to many. Though this changed depending on age with 60% of those who have been working in the sector for over 20 years likely to consider themselves to be part of a regulated profession. For newly qualified social workers, 63% simply saw themselves as “employees”.
- Training: Part of the knowledge and skills of social workers comes from the continuing professional development. For more than half (52%), training and building their skills was a way to be the best they can for people they support. 46% did it to motivate them to be a better social worker.
Reflective practice is also a core part of what makes up a social worker’s defining features. This technique – sometimes simply referred to a ‘reflection’ - is used widely among social workers to frame why they are doing their job. It focusses on what has worked well, where skills need improving, how their work impacts others, and the process that leads to the final outcome.
Reflection is also required as part of Social Work England’s CPD. They are seeking people to not just tick boxes and complete tasks, but to question why that task was done, how the process could be improved and find learning needs to create a cycle of ‘experience, reflection, learning and change’.
Developing a professional identity: Professional Standards
Another way to look at what makes a social worker is through the industry’s Professional Standards. The key aims of Social Work England’s Professional Standards are to promote the rights, strengths and wellbeing of people, families and communities. This is broken down into the following:
- Promoting the rights, strengths and wellbeing of people, families and communities
- Establishing and maintaining the trust and confidence of people
- Being accountable for the quality of practice and decisions made
- Maintaining continuing professional development
- Acting safely, respectfully and with professional integrity
- Promoting ethical practice and report concerns
How do you define social work?
Sue Williams, Programme Director, The Centre for Family Safeguarding Practice, Hertfordshire County Council, says social work practitioners love working in co-located teams, sharing responsibilities and decision making, and can really see how this way of working keeps more families together.
“Families say they are no longer afraid we are there to take their children away and children say they are happier,” she added.
“After more than 40 years as a social worker, I’m really proud to have been trusted by families to work alongside them and contribute help and support so they can bring up their children well.”
In part, the ways of working have improved how social workers see themselves: “Eight years ago, I had the opportunity to re-think how child protection services could be improved and created Family Safeguarding.
“Our teams work alongside colleagues from probation, mental health and adult substance misuse to try to tackle some of the problems that most affect children and families. We trained our teams in Motivational Interviewing with support of Alasdair Cant Associates and changed how we plan, work and record our analysis and decision making with families, with support from Liquidlogic.
“We are 21 authorities working in this way, with many more working towards becoming FS services with support from our DfE funded team.
“It has been a tough few years for all of our professions, but together we are so much stronger and confident in our work and the difference we can make. Let’s keep making the difference.”
Developing a professional identity: The negative factors
While a professional identity is aimed at helping to progress the image of social workers, there are some aspects of being a social worker that have been identified as giving the sector a negative impact.
This is impacting recruitment of new social workers, according to a BBC Wales investigation.
Bureaucracy levels, workload pressure, lack of time to spend with service users, and media portrayal of social work were seen as the most significant factors negatively impacting social workers’ professional identity.
These are how those working in the sector view potential negative factors. However, there is also the external view and how social workers are represented to consider.
Media portrayals of social workers often skews to the negative side. Take the controversary around an Eastenders story line that painted social workers as the “unhelpful” and highly inaccurate.
Speaking to the BBC, Bridget Robb, acting chief of the British Association of Social Workers at the time, said it had provoked “real anger among a profession well used to a less than accurate public and media perception of their jobs.”
Putting out a positive and professional identity
A united social work force is one that is powerful. And developing a professional identity is a key part of that coming together. By having a clear identity that is easy to get across to potential students, new recruits and the wider world, social work as an industry could start to turn the corner and become something people aspire to.
By showcasing the values – both professional and personal – that people in the sector already have, more people will start to recognise those values within themselves.