Transcript: Social Worker of the Year, Sandy Watt

Sandy Watt, a senior mental health officer and practice teacher with North Lanarkshire Council. In this episode Sandy talks to Iriss's Rikke Iversholt about his 30 years in social work and the changes that the sector has gone through.

Podcast Episode: Social Worker of the Year, Sandy Watt

Category: Social work (general) 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

RI - Rikke Iversholt
SW - Sandy Watt

RI Thank you Sandy for talking to me today and congratulation on being Social Worker of the Year in Scotland.

SW Thanks very much.

RI What does it mean for you to receive this award?

SW Well I suppose I am still probably trying to come to terms with it - it was a bit of a shock at the time, but as I say, I feel quite comfortable with it now, I feel quite happy because I realise it’s more than just a personal award, it is a reflection on social work in general and my colleagues and everybody I have had contact with. So I think it is great, and I can see how it is appropriate to have these awards as well and to extend the profile of social work in general and the work that people do.

RI Tell me about what attracted you to social work?

SW To be perfectly honest, I came into it by default would probably be the way to describe it. When I left school I hoped to do journalism originally, but I didn’t get the grades I was hoping for in my Highers, so I went into a Business Management course which is probably the worst possible think I could ever have done. And I realised after a couple of weeks there that this is not for me. But there was one subject amongst the course and the syllabus which was Behavioural Science. It was about the one interest that I really took an interest in, and during the course I met a few like-minded people like myself who weren’t happy with the course, were never going to be a business manager in a million years, but had an interest in the kind of social sciences side of it. So that was the time when I realised about the course at Paisley - it was Paisley College of Technology then, and so I did a Social Sciences Degree, plus the Adoption for social work later on. Again I wasn’t really conscious about my interest probably until then, at that time. I think it is probably to do with life experiences, and things happened in my family - I had a brother who died at a young age - that had a huge impact on all the family. So these things sometimes happen to you and you assimilate them into your psyche somehow and you deal with them. And it’s only maybe when you are … it’s triggered off by reading an article or hearing something on the news that creates emotions in you, and I suppose you realise maybe what it is that you are wanting to do. So I think that is probably what happened - I did kind of drift into it. And so I applied for the course … as I say I failed miserably at the Business Management course and I had the dubious honour of having, I think the lowest ever mark in accounts subject, about 22%. But luckily I was accepted for the Paisley course and I started and that was it. After that, we had the interview for the social work at the end of the first year to see if you wanted to into the social work option, and I was interviewed my Morag Faulds who was quite a well-known person within social work at the time - she is a lovely woman, and I was accepted for the social work part of the course, and that was it from there.

RI And was it an easy transition into professional life after qualifying?

SW No, I think it is always a shock to people, and I think it is very difficult to prepare yourself for when you actually qualify as a social worker. I think things are a bit different now - in fact I know they are different now. When I qualified you were given a large caseload and virtually told to get on with it, and I know that doesn’t happen now. We have learned a lot over the years: social workers get a lot better support, management wise, in developing your own work as well from that transition that you are talking about, which is a very important stage. So I think things are different now - it is still very daunting, I think, for anybody when you are qualified and you are left in that position where you are taking responsibility for your decision making - and although you get that as an essential part of your training and your competences, it is a different matter when you actually start working for real and you don’t have that sort of close supportive network - it is a different level of support once you are actually qualified and working out in the field where you are based.

RI I know from the awards that you were nominated for your Mental Health work - could you talk a little bit about that?

SW What had happened, I had worked in various settings, initially with generic social work was predominant when I qualified, and for a number of years after that - so you got a wide range of duties - mainly childcare, but there was also mental health work involved in that as well, sometimes with the children and families, but also with individuals with mental health problems. So I probably knew I did have an interest in that probably from the early days being qualified. And I got an opportunity to work in a hospital where I was a (… unclear) Sargant social worker for a year. That wasn’t to do with mental health as such, but whilst I was there, there was a link with Gartnaval Royal Hospital, psychiatric hospital, the senior was responsible for both the posts. So I managed to get a flavour of the type of job that would be involved there and moved into Gartnaval Royal after the year’s seconded post at Yorkhill Hospital, and I have been in mental health social work since then. And as I say, there have been so many changes within the mental health field, which has been great - I would say they are virtually all positive changes in mental health.

RI Yes, do you want to talk about some of those?

SW I could talk a wee bit about that, certainly. I mean certainly in terms of the policy for, you know, care in the community, for the provision, the closure of the old style institutional care for psychiatric patients - there was developments in there. I was lucky enough to get a post as a social worker in the Mental Health Team, the Community Mental Health Team was established in Airdrie - it was a brand new team, working alongside CPN’s, doctor attached to the team, occupational therapists and a team of social workers as well. So that is kind of when it all started, certainly within the North Lanarkshire in terms of the development of the Mental Health Teams within the community. So that has been a very positive thing for me, and I am back - although I have had a couple of times where I have been involved back in hospital social work, as part of the hospital closure programme - I worked at Woodilee Hospital for that. I have been back … I am now back working in the Community Mental Health Team in Coatbridge, and I think there are so many benefits attached to working in that type of setting for the patients and service users, that I hope it is a model that will continue to exist. It has got to change, it has got to evolve in different ways certainly, but there are so many benefits attached to it. And one of the, probably the prime ones … you are working in the same corridor with the psychiatrists and just along the corridor, psychology, eating disorder staff, CPNs, all in the same corridor - easily accessible. So I think it makes a huge difference in terms of … because it is so complicated - the communication within the field of mental health - because it is very rare that someone has a mental health problem on its own - there is normally a number of issues, often addiction issues, family relationship, children … so you could have one person with a number of different people involved, maybe all trying to do the same thing but in different ways. So I think it is very important that we keep hold of that model where they have an integrated approach. And I know … moving into politics a little bit now, but I know that the Scottish government have their pilot projects where it is joint funding for Health and Social Work - and I know there has been issues, obviously, up and down the country as to how that model can be applied - and I think there always will be tensions around, just because there can be differences within the bureaucracies and how they are organised within Health and Social Work. Probably the most positive thing … just a slight development in terms of the self-directed support which has evolved from the InControl model - I think a lot of people have seen significant benefits from it. It is still in the early days yet, and I think that is why there are a number of teething problems. It has also coincided at the time when there has been a squeeze on resources because of the economy shrinking dramatically over the year. So I think it has suffered a bit from that because the model itself, I think, is spot on - and it is person centred and it is an easy model to adapt, and a model that encourages people to talk to each other with the person at the centre of it. So there has been lots of interesting developments. And I suppose the other one, more significant one, has been the legislative changes with the Mental Health Care & Treatment (Scotland) Act coming in, the Adult Incapacity Act, and then the Adult Support and Protection Act - three massive pieces of legislation which affects all our client groups and service users, but particularly people within our field, within the mental health. And again, although there have been difficulties, overall I would say they have all had a positive impact in people’s lives.

RI Have to you seen how you and your colleagues have had an impact under these legislations, like where change has happened bottom up?

SW I think so, I mean I think in terms of … particularly with the person has been not excluded from the processes, that has probably been the biggest thing. Social Work has always, as part of its ethos and it philosophy, it has always had the person at the centre and promoting self-determination. And it is how you incorporate that into where you are making decisions about a person’s health, safety and welfare, where other people’s health, safety and welfare can be affected as well. And the fact that is it now enshrined in all the legislation, that people have to be at the centre, have to be included at all points - and if they are not included, it has to be clearly recorded why they are not included. And also, obviously the use of advocacy … not just the use of advocacy, but the fact again it is enshrined in the legislation, all those 3 pieces of legislation - the use of advocacy has been a significant benefit, I think. And that is probably … again, I think Social Work has played a role in that over the years in terms of promoting individuals rights for self-determination and having a say in decision making about their own lives. So that has probably been a … I hadn’t actually thought about that until you asked me today, so it’s quite interesting.

RI Because it is obviously a tough job, what are the things that keep the fire going?

SW Well I think I am lucky enough that I really enjoy my job, and I don’t feel any less enthusiastic for the job than I did when I started. And I suppose I still feel, you know, you are in a very privileged position in the work that we are doing, because you are directly involved in people’s lives at the time when they are at their most vulnerable. And you can get a whole range of emotions that can come with that - from the person themselves and then the response, how you deal with it. And that bit, for me, has never really changed. There is still the benefits that you can provide … you can make a significant difference in a person’s life, and it may not be tangible at the time, but sometimes it comes out in other forms and other ways, sometimes at other times. And I will tell you … I was actually in the supermarket last night with my wife, and I was coming up to the till and someone, I could see, was looking over at me. And I glanced over and wasn’t exactly sure who it was. When I came up to the till he says, “excuse me”, he says, “are you a social worker?” And I hesitated, because obviously you have to think before you answer one way or the other, but it was a friendly tone, the way he said it. I said “yes”. He said “are you Sandy Watt” and then gave another social worker’s name which is similar to mine. He said have you worked in Cumbernauld before, and I said “I did, that’s right”. And he gave me his name and he said “I was a client of yours when I was 12 years old”, and he is now 42. So that was quite nice, and it was nice because he told us about how things … and I have to be perfectly honest, I didn’t recognise him, but the fact that he recognised me is probably quite a … whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know. But I suppose it is those kind of … and that has happened to me a couple of times over the years where out the blue someone will come to you and introduce themselves, and say just a wee story really, but quite keen to talk to you - not in an intrusive way, just a way … it’s almost like saying “well thanks, just to let you know I am still alive and I am doing okay” - people you maybe haven’t seen for years. I think that’s the bits that motivate you. And the parts of the job that you need to do are again exactly the same - it’s the same basic qualities that you need - that total, unconditional, positive regard for people, non-judgemental, be able to listen properly and sincerely to people - all those bits haven’t changed, they are still the same. And you still have to have all the other parts that go along with it - and maybe that is a bit that personally I have probably developed more in the last, maybe 10 years or so - looking at it from a wider concept. I think social workers and mental health officers and anybody involved in social work as a whole have to be … we have always had to be politically aware - but I think even more so now, because it’s such an important part of everything we do, in service users lives as well.

RI Now we have talked about the areas of progress that you have seen over your career - are there any things that are currently happening that you would like to comment on?

SW I think it is fair to say, people have to be honest about it - the impact on the benefits changes are going to have a massive, massive impact, and it is not going to be very pretty for anybody involved in the process. I think there is … there is probably going to be a higher risk of social unrest, greater poverty, there is probably more opportunity unfortunately for factions to develop within the country … I am talking about Scotland, England and different parts of the country as well. Unfortunately things like stigma and things like that, or discrimination - all these parts unfortunately can come to the fore when people are under pressure, impoverished, feel more deprived next to their neighbour or whatever. So I think that is going to be the biggest challenge that everybody is going to face - it is not just social workers, health professionals, housing, anybody involved in the caring professions, but also society as a whole, because it is going to have an impact. And there are obviously no easy answer to that - I mean I think if we bring it back to our own, the context that I work in within North Lanarkshire Council, I feel they have handled this as well as possible - actually they have tried to make everybody aware of the changes that are happening within the council in terms of the funding structure that is available now and how that has changed over the years. And I think it is right approach - I think people have to be informed, you have to be honest and say “look, these changes have to happen - this is going to have an impact on people, and it is going to affect you as a worker”. And I think it is how you put that in the wider context of all the councils and the government as a whole can put that … be honest with people and not be frightened to say “there is going to be changes, there is going to be unrest” - because people are frightened to say it, governing bodies are going to be reluctant, because it is very difficult to justify your position politically if it is not going to be a nice change at the end of it. And for people to be honest now and say “look things had gone too far maybe in a direction before and we need to claw back from there - but it doesn’t mean to say that people’s lives cannot still be improved”. So it is complicated, certainly, but it is going to be a tough, the next 5 years are going to be very difficult in particular, which is also going to be affected by the European economy and the worldwide economy. And it is clearer now, I suppose, now with all the technology and access to information that people have, which is normally a positive thing, but it can also give people a sense of awe, I think, as to what potentially can happen 1,000 miles away can have a direct impact on you. And I suppose from the mental health point of view, I think it can also … people with mood difficulties, it can be extremely difficult if they have access to information which tends to be negative a lot of the time as well - but that is a bit of a digression.

RI You are also a practice teacher - could you tell me a bit about what it is that you do in that capacity?

SW I have been a practice teacher for a good number of years. Now again I can’t give you specifics of that because it has been a wee while. I have a student every so often, maybe every few years, it just depends - the last couple of years I have had one every year, just goes on demands as well. So it is important for us to take students - and it is always a pleasure - I always enjoy it, but people do really enjoy the experience of having a student, although it does have an impact on your own workload and therefore the team’s workload. So it does … it puts pressure on a team, but the benefits I think far outweigh the difficulties that can come with it. So my role, as a practice teacher, is to have a strong link obviously with the student, but the student’s tutor as well, and involved in the planning stage, before the person comes, before the student comes to the workplace - identify what their learning needs are, what their desired outcomes are from the placement itself - and we have a three-way meeting midway through the placement and then one prior to the end of the placement. And that’s sort of the structure of it. Again there are different forms of it in terms of the days, the length of the placement days and the way it is structured. But the role that you are expected to do is a number of hours … I can’t remember, I think it is 7 hours a week is to be given to the student. It’s very … you can’t really put a figure on it as such, but there is meant to be like a minimum contact where you have supervision for a 3 hour period. And it is usually about 7 hours of your week. And your role really, as a practice teacher you have got a whole range of tasks, I suppose. You are a bit of a … you do have a role as a mentor as well, but you also have to be aware obviously and have a good knowledge of the outcomes and objectives that have to be met, the standards that have to be … because it is a huge pressure on the students and a bit commitment for them to ensure that they are going to be able to cover all their objectives. But at the same time our job is to try and get them to enjoy the experience and get the learning part of it and not focus totally on the objectives. Things like the reflective diary I think help people - some students manage that better than others, about feeling comfortable about writing about their own experiences and then being able to share them with the practice teacher - but generally I find it can be a good forum, particularly if someone maybe has difficulty on the reflective side and being able to reflect on their own work. The diary can help as a communication tool with the practice teacher. But there is so much in the role, and the benefits again for the practice teacher and for the team. The team I work in just now is, as I say it’s a mental health team, and it is Health and Social Work, so there is always student about. If there is not a Social Work student there is Health, there is nursing students, there’s occupational therapy students and there is a lot of interchanging between where people will go with another discipline as part of your induction process. So it is probably quite a good environment for students coming to our team as well, and the feedback we get is positive as well, so that is really good. But probably one of the core parts is where you are helping the student to realise … a wee bit of that question you asked me “what makes you come into social work and what you can bring to it”, and what it is, again I suppose, they can keep you going. What protective measures are you going to have so you are going to be able to develop and still be able to support people even when you are under pressure yourself in your own life? So there are a whole range of tasks involved, and it can be quite exhausting I think for the student and the practice teacher as well, because you have to develop a relationship, otherwise it is not going to work.

RI I am interested in talking about peer support if we can, especially in the context of the team that you are working in. How do you support each other when you are all from different disciplines?

SW I think it’s an interesting question. I have had experience of working in different mental health teams and I have seen it work in some and not work in others. If you look at all the theories about what makes a successful team, one of the main things is about structure, the organisational structure, and that is very, very significant - there is no doubt about that. But it is also important, the mix of people, the professionals and the people who are involved in the teams. If you have got a group of people who are fairly confident in their work but there is no professional jealousies or they are prepared to share mistakes that they make, their frailties, they are prepared to help each other out - whether it is health, social work or occupational therapy - if you have got enough of a group of people within a team that come with that sort of philosophy, also with a positive attitude as well, it can work and it can work really well. And I am lucky enough the team that I am in and have been for eight years now is on that basis. A lot of the core of the team have been there, and are still there - there have been changes to the team in terms of personnel coming in, but the core persons within it are still around and offer support in times of crisis, maybe staying on a bit later, doubling up for visits, nipping into the corridor and asking “have you got five minutes” - and it is not necessarily cases that are shared, it could be just for a bit of advice, an opinion. So it does work - I would say it does work well within our team. Let me give another example - one thing in the mental health officer’s training course, I am shadowing maybe a MHO student - it is extremely important that people know from the start that you are not going to be on your own, a wee bit like a social work student as well - that you have got access to others, you need to share information, you need to talk to people, you can’t possibly know all the legislation, know everything - you are going to have to regularly communicate with people, pick up the phone, ask. We all do it. I do it, everybody does it, no matter how experienced you are you need to cross-refer, just ask, just ask for a bit of help, a bit of advice at any time. So I think you need to keep promoting that as well, I think within all aspects of your work and at different stages for student. And I say the health staff do that as well - I would say the health and occupational therapy staff are all big enough that they are able to see past any differences, which there is bound to be, there is bound to be some difference, maybe in use of language, I suppose even different … the Health staff don’t still haven’t incorporated where everything is on the computer - we have been doing that for a good number of years. That is now coming into the fore, so that will be quite a significant change for the Health staff. So you have to be aware of all the thing that are going on and the changes that might be different - they may not necessarily affect you directly, but will affect you indirectly as the team as a whole. It is a very important one and it is quite complicated - there can be quite a fine line, and if someone comes in, a new person in the team, the dynamic can change. So again that can be a test for the existing staff who are there.

RI What are your plans for the next 5 years? Have you set yourself any challenges?

SW Well workwise I have been doing a cognitive analytical therapy, I am doing a lot of … that was a training about 1 ½ years ago, a week’s training - I was lucky enough to get a place on that, and I have been involved as a therapist for one … just one person, so I am just at the beginning stage. But I really enjoyed it, and I can apply it to all aspects of my work. So that has been one challenge and I am really enjoying that and I hope to expand on that over the next few years. Hopefully just try and keep on top of things the best I can, and still enjoy what I am doing. I will start getting worried if I don’t want to come into work in the morning, and luckily I have always wanted to do that - I have no problem even coming back from holiday - I am quite happy to be back. So although things are going in the wrong direction, if that starts to set in … but there are so many different aspects to the job. It is never the same really. The only bits that stay the same are what you need, the qualities that you need to do it to the best of your ability. But there are so many other changes in terms of legislation and changes of personnel and everything else going on - you never get the chance to be bored.

RI That’s brilliant, thank you Sandy

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