Why don’t social workers have a sense of humour?

I had a very interesting conversation with a young parent recently and she was happy for me to tell you what she said.

We were talking about why relationships between parents and social workers can get so bad so quickly. Just what is going wrong? Obviously it is often a difficult and tense time for parents and social workers to try and talk about really important things involving people’s children and lifestyles, particularly if there are court proceedings looming and on going.

But at the end of the day we are all human. And we should be able to talk to one another as humans.

Is this another consequence of the ‘child rescue narrative’ that seems to be driving so much of current care proceedings? Sally’s experiences seem very common; a lot of parents complain that their behaviour and reactions are consistently seen in a negative light, whereas similar behaviour from professionals (such as being late to contact) is excused or explained by external events (such as traffic jams).

‘Sally’ speaks

Why don’t social workers have a sense of humour? Has it been removed from them? My partner and I coped with difficult situations by making light of it. I will give you an example

We were asked some intrusive questions about our sex lives and we tried to make a joke about it. It would have really helped if the social worker could have reacted in a more relaxed way, rather than making it obvious that she was shocked and upset by what we said.

It goes beyond ‘having a sense of humour’ . I really noticed that everything we said or did was seen in the most negative light possible.  So making lighthearted comments or jokes was used against us.

I know this is a serious situation and it isn’t always the right thing to try and joke about. But sometimes if we were scared or nervous we would try and lighten the mood. But anything we said that we thought was obviously a joke was taken seriously.

My partner jokingly kissed my neck and scooped me into his arms during an assessment. The assessor wrote that she thought we were intending to have sex in the office! and that we probably indulged in ‘inappropriate sexual activity’ in front of our child.

21 thoughts on “Why don’t social workers have a sense of humour?

  1. FamilyLaw_Dad

    I was distraught on being told by Social Workers I wouldn’t be allowed to see my children. I tried to set out the context for them as to where the allegations appeared to have come from (i.e. the other parent had, in a well documented history, been slowly cutting me out of the children’s life with gradually incremental breaches of the Child Arrangements Order). They were unwilling to listen and apparently my distress was not respecting their professionalism. They stopped my children from seeing me without even meeting me or seeing the children with me.

    Following a wholly inadequate process and subsequent report my legal team took up cudgels, initiated a judicial review and a new (much more experienced and senior) team of social workers was appointed, avoiding court on this point much to my counsel’s distress – she’d been quite looking foward to it. The new team listened carefully, observed carefully. Prepared a revised report (that frankly threw their earlier colleagues under a bus) and all returned to calm and normal. (later court hearings rebuked the other parent and kept the existing child arrangements in place).

    Some time later, once the dust was settled I requested a copy of all the records for the children and myself (under the well understood provisions of the Data Protection Act) and :

    1. Such records as were disclosed were disclosed massively beyond the statutory deadline.
    2. Had such clear omissions we pushed back for more disclosure
    3. We received more disclosure (having been told that everything was already disclosed).
    4. It turns out that the authority has not a single record from the original team.
    5. Apparently therefore the original team stopped children seeing their parent without keeping a single record of their interactions with parents, other social workers, children, police, courts, lawyers.
    6. What professionalism exactly should I be respecting exactly?
    7. And the Guardian asks why social workers don’t trumpet their achievements?
    8. And social workers feel unloved?

  2. looked_after_child

    As a natural parent whose child entered Care I know my ‘gallows humour’ is one of my last defences..it can seem savage (and I do a lot to keep it under control in a lot of situations) but SW’s should walk in my shoes for a day when my chest feels like their is a very tight band around it and indeed a night when my mind keeps whirling and twisting. Humour is my saviour. I’d recommend it.

    1. HelenSparkles

      I can’t comment on any other SW than those I know, but humour is fine, gallows humour in the face of challenges is also fine. It would be odd if professionals trained in human psychology, to some degree, didn’t recognise the function of humour. It would also be odd if parent used humour during a Section 47 investigation, just think about watching a TV drama where humour is used in a police interview, that would not ring true hun?

  3. Angelo Granda

    They say humour played a big part in Britain getting through two world wars but I have never seen any on this resource from professionals only victims of the system.
    SW’s ,in particular, have one guiding light and humour ( except in-house) is not included. They are taught to take notes, take notes, take notes! Should they happen to include snippets of a gag told by parents in their notes then any humour is lost on the manager who has to examine them and concoct a case against a parent. He will cite parts of it out of context, misquote etc.
    We have to remember two things: a) the notes on which cases rely to a large extent are NOT a record of events; they are what they are just hurriedly written down snippets of conversations ( usually led by the SW with one object only in mind).b) the SW’s, especially the team managers are very experienced and very skilled in deceiving council decision-makers in order to bring about their own aims. It is not difficult for those with CSAS and similar behavioural difficulties to doctor the meaning of notes and change the meaning especially when they are never seen, they are hidden away in ‘ files ‘.

    In serious Public Law cases, only written and signed and dated statements should be used in a Family Court as in the criminal system.
    The problem was examined and discussed very ably by Jason on another thread . SW’s are adept at taking casual gossip, hearsay, mere allegations and so-called ‘intelligence reports’ and disguising them as FACT.


  4. Angelo Granda

    I was going to say ,These professionals may actually have a sense of humour but they disguise and use it only to their own advantage. The post writer describes a report that she began to have sex in the office! Was that the SW’s sense of humour in notes disguised as fact later by the team leader to demonstrate inappropriate sexual propensities on her part?

  5. looked_after_child

    On the point of SW’s humour, what I wonder is if it is seen as ‘unprofessional’ to show humanity/feel empathy – so there is no place for humour because it breaks down to many barriers?

    I’ve also noticed a number of weird and wonderful jargonistic phrases in the SW world – really rich pickings for a satirist..

    I came across this recently – ‘Inspections are necessary ( in my opinion) when children are at potential risk of neglect. All professionals are required to keep their skills and knowledge up to date and avoidance of desensitising is paramount.’

    So this I think when I read something like this:-

    Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is essential for all professionals and usually a condition of membership of a professional institute or equivalent. CPD that gives training on how to reach a broad non-specialist audience without resorting to jargon can really improve a professional’s effectiveness.

    All children are ‘at potential’ risk of neglect. All children are at ‘potential risk’ of being well supported.
    Is the issue one of being able to assess risk or the harm associated with the risk even if the potential for risk is small?

    When talking of ‘neglect’ – Are SW’s identifying the ‘neglector’ and ‘the neglectee’ or is it left to judges to widen the field of vision beyond the family unit?

    I suspectit is a component of resilience is to have a capacity for desensitising.’Desensitising’ must always have a context to have meaning.( so – About what exactly??)

    I can see why judges get so frustrated if they get reports full of phrases like this used unthinkingly as if the phrase alone is meant to get everyone going ”’Aaah, yes, so right” and instead non SWs are thinking ” Can someone who cannot put a case together without resorting to stock, meaningless phrases be right about much?”

    This picks up on another one – http://www.familylawweek.co.uk/site.aspx?i=ed17716

    1. HelenSparkles

      Those would absolutely be the worst examples of a SW statement. Fortunately I’ve read few like that, but I only read a v small sample obviously.

    1. Angelo Granda4PM

      Perhaps now this thread has started, those with a sense of humour could use it as a means of telling humorous anecdotes and facts about the CP system . People must have lots of hilarious stories.
      I have certainly come across funny characters over the years ( enough to write my own comic book).
      Many professionals see themselves as ‘gladiators’ dedicated to the salvation of children. An honourable cause indeed. I’ll never forget one particular female SW. We used to call her Ellen .I won’t give her surname but she was also known under the gladiatorial pseudonym of “THE PREDICATOR”. I am sure I have no need to explain she was at her happiest when predicating on antecedents. She loved it ! Does anyone know her?
      Has anyone come across “10 minute Tess of the Bar” from Leeds. She was a formidable barrister ,very hard-working who was forever telling us funny stories about her experiences travelling between cases in first class carriages. The hours she spent in them were so tiring .Obviously ,she had to have a quick glance through case papers before Court but most of her time was spent glued to her mobile ‘phone ,tweeting and taking part in social media. ” Much more interesting” she used to say.
      A kid of 18 from Birmingham ( whilst on his way to prison) who had spent over ten years in residential homes had funny tales of one of the care-home Social Workers. The kids used to call him ” THE GREAT BIG WOOFER”. It seems he once watched an episode of SuperNanny on TV and began to model himself on her. Hence his name WOOFER. He used to bark out like a dog at the kids “NAUGHT-TY STEP–NOW”. He reckoned smacking was hideously cruel (despite the practice being legal) and that the best way to bring children up law-abiding was confine them to their room or the naughty step.
      I look forward tom all contributions to the thread especially if anyone has any quotes.

      1. HelenSparkles

        I think having a sense of humour is not the same as telling anecdotes on a public forum to entertain you Angelo.

  6. Angelo Granda

    Oh dear, really, don’t be such a wet blanket, Helen. Enter into the spirit of the thread. Try not to desensitise the subject. I know you don’t use silly professional jargon personally but you must have seen a lot of it over the years which has caused you amusement. Pass it on to readers.

    1. HelenSparkles

      Your idea, your spirit, excuse me whilst I opt out. I’d rather be a wet blanket than make fun of people.

  7. Dr Stephen Jordan

    At a risk of saying too much. I have written before about humour and social work, given that social work is a serious business. It feels almost distasteful even unethical to suggest that one might laugh in a social work office or even with a service user. Possessing a sense of humour has long been viewed as a key to success in personal relationships (Guéguen, 2010; DiDonato et al, 2013), and humour is seductive- as Nushra Mansuri, BASW professional officer, (writing about Clare in the Community) said: “given the deluge of media negativity about social workers, there is something very freeing about being able to laugh at ourselves” (Meachin, 2013). Damned, the Channel 4 TV series created by Jo Brand, whose mother was a social worker, is another attempt to find humour in the challenging world of social work.
    The use of humour by social workers and their colleagues are cited as one of their most common coping mechanisms (Moran and Hughes, 2006) and several studies found that humour and the sharing of humour can build resilience in social work teams e.g. Siporin, (1984); Witkin (1999); Sullivan (2000); Moran and Hughes (2006) and Gilgun and Sharma (2011). Gilgun and Sharma’s (2011) study found social workers in their study used humour to regulate anxiety, frustration and shock, and positive aspects of humour use, including emotion regulation, and creative problem solving and social workers in their study often used humour to express liking of service users
    However humour not always been seen so positively- Kadushin and Kadushin (1997) and Hill and O’Brien (2004) have warned that the use humour should never be used at the service users expense, as this conveys a degree of lack of empathy of insensitivity. Humour is common to all humans (Apte, 1983; Holt, 2008), and it is possible that humour has a unique potential for demonstrating particular characteristics of a social worker. when applied sensitively and appropriately it could be a useful tool to enable social workers to help service users manage their own emotions, as Howe (1998) argued that if poor relationships are where psychosocial competences go awry, then good relationships are where they are likely to recover (Howe, 1998).
    Social work is a risky endeavour, fraught with anxiety and complexities, and the practice of social work one could argue is primarily about risk taking. What could be the value to a social worker in using humour and taking such a risky course of action?
    The answer lies in what humour communicates about the teller to the recipient, as humour is a universal human characteristic conveys a person’s ‘normality’ to others and communicates their humanity, because it is founded in our earliest attachment experiences. In this sense humour has unique power to convey a particular characteristic about a social worker, and that is why I suggest some social workers take the risk of using humour, as the opposite, a lack of humour, conveys a lack of humanity.
    Service users can themselves teach social workers the importance of finding the humour, irony and absurdity in their situations, and whilst it is unethical to laugh at people and their problems, it may be helpful to laugh with them as they describe the humourous aspects of their experiences (Frost, 1992).
    The social worker who uses humour is also a more resilient social worker. Furnivall (2011) includes, amongst other attributes which build resilience in children in care, a sense of humour, particularly the capacity to laugh at one-self, and the same applies to building resilient social work practitioners.
    So humour is something that cannot be avoided, and instead social workers have to engage with humour, either as the object of humour or as active participants. Humour is necessary for successful relationships, but is also a risky undertaking and social workers ignore humour at their peril, as humour is key to social life, but it remains an often unexamined component in explaining and understanding relationships. Attachment is crucial to establishing and maintaining relationships and humour helps social workers create and maintain attachments with others, at the same time as helping social workers managing their own emotions and the emotions of others. Social workers fear not being taken seriously, but conversely use humour and jokes can help social workers manage their unhappiness at work, to cope with the stress of the work, and to have successful relationships.
    So after all what’s my favourite joke about social work?
    A social worker is facing a mugger with a gun. “Your money or your life!” says the mugger. “I’m sorry,” the social worker answers, “I am a social worker, so I have no money and no life.”

    1. HelenSparkles

      I agree with you completely, it is complex, but finding humour with people is invaluable.

      Laughing at anyone is quite another thing.

  8. looked_after_child

    Thank you Doc.
    Aside from the use of the word ‘attachment’ ( one of my ‘swear words – Do you mean ‘bond;? ‘) I cannot argue with a word…makes complete sense

  9. Angelo Granda

    Of course, senses of humour differ. Some can laugh at themselves and others cannot. I think it is a bit iffy to poke fun at individuals by name ( except possibly politicians) but acceptable to laugh at social workers in general without actually identifying them by name. Some of them are so stupid ,one cannot help it. We are not denying that others are very clever and full of wisdom.
    Likewise they must see and hear silly things from parents and children(“service-users”) .
    So, let’s take the doctors advice and use this thread as an outlet for humourous comments from now on hun?

    1. HelenSparkles

      No, still not making fun of people here Angelo, even if they have committed the crime of being “stupid”, we all can be after all. I think the Dr’s advice was more about using humour appropriately WITH people.

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