An adventurous journey: Social workers guiding customer service workers on the welfare frontline
Keywords:relational social work, income support, customer service, professional identity
INTRODUCTION: This paper explores a reform to worker relationships at the frontline of the Australian income support and government service provider (Centrelink). Reform involved social workers providing guidance to customer service workers and working closely with them in order to improve interactions with people seeking assistance.
METHODS: A case study traced reform in two Centrelink offices over one year, and included semi-structured interviews and observations with social workers and customer service workers. A thematic analysis highlighted the nature of changes to worker relationships over time, and how new relationships supported new organizational practices.
FINDINGS: Customer service workers initially reported both anxiety and excitement, expressing admiration of social workers’ skills and knowledge. Over time, they emphasised the inspiration and interpersonal support social workers provided them, how this helped them deal with difficult situations and was missed when not available. Social workers’ initial scepticism around demands on their time and challenges to their professionalism gave way (in part) to a sense of influencing and guiding workers towards more humanising interactions, although some concerns and organizational tensions remained.
CONCLUSION: Guidance to other workers is a form of leadership which fits well with social work’s relational, supportive potential. Tensions in the welfare context mean that providing guidance is both rewarding and challenging, taking social workers on an adventurous journey involving adversity and (self) discovery.
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