Feeling the tension: where to from here?

A guest post from Bex, Luis and Su:

Workers find themselves assigned substantially changed workloads and mandates and charged with enforcing definitions of need and entitlement with which they may be politically, professionally, and personally at odds.’                                  Aronson & Sammon, 2000, p.168)

What started just like any other ANZASW Facebook page post spawned a series of entries regretting the way in which social workers were, at times, forced to practice in ways which did not align to their beliefs and values. This got a few of us thinking as to why this may be the case. What powerful forces were in play that compelled some social workers to practice in ways incongruent to their value systems and, according to one entry, potentially against the law?  Why and how do skilled and passionate social workers end up in positions where they must compromise on practice integrity? What creates that tension and are there ways to resist?

Being front line social workers ourselves, we have our own thoughts and ideas on the subject and, at times, clearly feel the tension between what we should do and what we are asked to do. However, we wanted to turn to the literature to see what it said on the matter and whether it can afford us some insight into the dilemma that was highlighted in the Facebook thread.

Dominelli (2010) talks about the effect of globalisation and neoliberalism on social work practice, leading to a transactional relationship between us and our clients. There has been an increase in paperwork and administrative tasks over the last decade, which generally includes tick-box assessments in order to measure outputs and outcomes that are not qualitative in nature and fall straight into the lap of the neoliberal agenda. The constant need to meet targets and KPI’s, through ‘client entry’ guidelines, case by case monitoring and extremely tight timeframes (McDonald & Chenoweth, 2009), bracketed with the constant pressure to discharge clients (Darroch, 2017), has all but removed any autonomy from the role.

We’re forced to value efficiency over responsiveness. This creates an uncomfortable tension within a profession that prides itself on authenticity. Policy and research have fallen away from our day to day practice and into the hands of distant decision makers. With a lack of value placed on practice-based-evidence, we are left dealing with the individual client without any power to comment on, or address, surrounding structural issues.

The domination of neoliberal processes on social work practice is so pervasive it leaves the majority of us wondering whether it is even worth challenging (Wallace & Pease, 2011). When there is a challenge to the status quo social workers are often disciplined (Baines, 2010), making it  clear for other social workers to see that the pursuit of such ‘idiocy’ is pointless, and risks damaging career prospects (Darroch, 2017). Examples of this would be social workers being disciplined for not following policies that they believed were counter to the wellbeing of a child or young person, or challenging management over decisions to discharge a client so that the monthly report reads slightly more favourably. Both these examples are authentic and resulted in written warnings for the social workers in question. Other more recent examples can be found in the recent media reports about social work in Oranga Tamariki.

So, what does the literature say about how our resistance can manifest itself?

Acts of resistance include ‘looking the other way’ when a client may have another person living in the home for example – and not notifying the relevant authorities for other minor indiscretions. This kind of thoughtful non-compliance focuses on the benefits these acts may have for the client (Greenslade et al., 2014). There has also been a call from some social workers to include the clients’ voice in policy creation (Krumer-Nevo, 2008) and to move away from the dominant prescribed practice methodologies, instead using practice-based evidence to develop better ways of working (Blumhardt and Gupta , 2017).

Expressing cynicism in the workplace, something that we can safely say would be in abundance in most social work settings, through such things as black humour and challenging contemporary practice methodologies, has the potential to provide better outcomes to the client (Carey, 2012). Collinson ( 1994), suggests that we use cynicism as a way to protect ourselves from the practice we are forced to perform and that it’s healthy as long as it is directed to the organisation and not the client (Carey, 2012). Related to this, is the idea of rejecting professionalism in a bid to practice “competent solidarity”; a term coined by Alastair Russell which prescribes an intentional method of working alongside people to create change within the systems that oppress them (Russell, 2017). Rejecting the professionalism of social work requires practitioners to work outside of the organisation’s policies and procedures, a daunting, but often necessary measure for upholding the integrity of anti-oppressive and transformational practice (Russell, 2017).

Other areas of resistance include joining a union, which allows social workers to ‘speak their mind’ in the safety of numbers and through the mouth piece of their union representative (Baines, 2010). Another common act of resistance is seen in the refusal to use certain words such as the term ‘customer’ when referring to a client (McDonald & Chenoweth, 2009). Other acts include spending greater time with clients and exaggerating their needs (Carey & Foster, 2011) – such as overstating the number of people in a household when picking up a food parcel and implementing smaller more discrete projects under the main project scope (Lovell, Kearns, & Prince, 2013). More overt actions of resistance include confronting middle management and colleagues about practice standards, and of course, whistle blowing (Carey & Foster, 2011).

In the climate which the profession currently finds itself in, it is of great importance for us to narrow the gap between ourselves and the people we are working with. We need to let go of the puppet strings that hold our profession back from challenging the structures that keep people oppressed and in need of social work intervention. Anecdotal conversations with social workers in many settings point to the need to refocus our practice away from the current modes of operation. Not only do we need to adjust our focus, but we need to re-group and become a much more solid collective unit to be able to combat the issues discussed here. Otherwise social workers will continue to burn out and will no longer be a voice for those who desperately need emancipating within our society.

Image credit: teofilo 



Aronson, J., Sammon, S. (2000). PRACTICE AMID SOCIAL SERVICE CUTS AND RESTRUCTURING: Working with the Contradictions of “Small Victories”. Canadian Social Work Review / Revue canadienne de service social, 17(2), 167-187.

Baines, D. (2010). Neoliberal Restructuring Activism Participation and Social Unionism in the Nonprofit Social Services. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 39(1), 10-28. doi:10.1177/0899764008326681

Blumhardt, H., UK., A. F. W., & Gupta, A. (2017). Radical practice in a risk-averse environment Learning from ATD Fourth World UK. AOTEAROA NEW ZEALAND SOCIAL WORK, 29(2), 19-33.

Carey, M. (2012). Mind the Gaps: Understanding the Rise and Implications of Different Types of Cynicism within Statutory Social Work. British Journal of Social Work, 44(1), 127-144. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcs098

Carey, M., & Foster, V. (2011). Introducing ‘Deviant’ Social Work: Contextualising the Limits of Radical Social Work whilst Understanding (Fragmented) Resistance within the Social Work Labour Process. British Journal of Social Work, 41(3), 576-593. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcq148

Collinson, D. (1994). Strategies of resistance:power, knowledge and subjectivity in the workplace. In Resistance and power in organizations (pp. 25-68). London: Routledge.

Darroch, J. (2017). Social Justice What the social work profession’s commitment means in practice. (Master of Social Work), University of Auckland, Auckland.

Dominelli, L. (2010). Globalization, contemporary challenges and social work practice. International Social Work, 53(5), 599-612. doi:10.1177/0020872810371201

Greenslade, L., McAuliffe, D., & Chenoweth, L. (2014). Social Workers’ Experiences of Covert Workplace Activism. Australian Social Work, 68(4), 422-437. doi:10.1080/0312407x.2014.940360

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2008). From noise to voice. International Social Work, 51(4), 556-565. doi:10.1177/0020872808090248

Lovell, S. A., Kearns, R. A., & Prince, R. (2013). Neoliberalism and the contract state: exploring innovation and resistance among New Zealand Health Promoters. Critical Public Health, 24(3), 308-320. doi:10.1080/09581596.2013.808317

McDonald, C., & Chenoweth, L. (2009). (Re) Shaping Social Work: An Australian Case Study. British Journal of Social Work, 39(1), 144-160. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcm094

Russell, A. (2017). Competent solidarity: the alternative for professional social work. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 29(2), 137-144.

Wallace, J., & Pease, B. (2011). Neoliberalism and Australian social work: Accommodation or resistance? Journal of Social Work, 11(2), 132-142. doi:10.1177/1468017310387318




9 replies on “Feeling the tension: where to from here?”

Thank you, what an excellent piece! I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of detailing so many ways to resist. I completely agree that in a neo-liberally dominated environment Challenging the status quo can have real risks. I also agree that finding modes of collective solidarity is critical, I am not so sure that the current institutions of social work provide a good forum for the collective voice of resistance. I really look forward to reading more, it is so refreshing to see material directly informed by the experiences of current practice.

Kia ora David, Bex, Su and I wanted to pen something that came from what not only informed by our own experience but backed up with the literature. Thank you for your kinds words, it was our collective first step and I am sure not our last

thank you – a bouquet of wonderful wisdoms and insights to pass around to colleagues, in fact the best thing worth passing on, perhaps lies just outside your words, that of hope, along with each social workers skill to manage paradox!

Kia ora Merrill, Thank you…. You are absolutely right.. There is an abundance of hope in the current social work ranks both on the front line and within academia.. While the media reports of late have not been favorable, there will be change led from within these ranks.

It’s election year this year, and that brings opportunities for social workers to address social justice issues with clients. Often our clients move house frequently, so checking with all clients that they are registered to vote, and helping them do this if needed, is a good first step. Having discussions about the issues that affect them, supporting them to get information about where different parties stand on the different issues, translating our academic knowledge about social issues into easily understood information for clients, doing media work – writing articles for the community papers or being interviewed on the community radio saying how it is for our clients, and how it could be different , working with groups of clients to support them in their own political development… this point social workers will say ‘ when do I have the time to think about this, let alone do anything’ or ‘how do I drain the swamp when I am up to my neck in crocodiles?’ Do one thing, then do another. Do it with others and share the load.

These are fantastic suggestions Jackie and one that could produce real change. And I do agree, our time is so short and precious however like you you, it’s about doing one thing at a time and over time it’s surprising how it adds up. Thanks for your suggestions, I’ll bve adding some more of this mahi into mine.

Thanks for that feedback, Luis. If every social worker does one thing, then there will be hundreds if not thousands of election-related actions.

It’s great to read these posts and to know colleagues are thoughtful in actions. I believe it is only by asking awkward questions of the systems in which we work, And by creative ways to subvert some oppressive systemic parts, that we will truly assist clients. Thanks to all. V.

You’re absolutely right Virginia. We also need to find ways to create the space so that critical questioning can occur. As a collective force in Aotearoa we can create those changes so badly needed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: