Years ago when I worked for the NHS as a substance misuse worker, I was offered the chance to work as an outreach support worker to sex workers in Cheshire.
Cheshire has sex workers? “Surely not” came the cries of those I excitedly told of my new responsibilities. Yes, like every county, Cheshire has sex workers!
I was responsible for going to six massage parlours, and my role was to try and engage the women in conversation with a view to offering them support and facilitating their attendance at our health clinic. Sometimes it was very difficult to get passed the door, but the parlours that did let me in were, in the main, very welcoming and the girls seemed to be happy to discuss their support needs and concerns. They would frequently tell me how much talking to me helped them and would ask me to go more often. During one of my outreach sessions, one girl disclosed that she had been bathing in bleach every night after work for six months. I was able to get her the help she needed quickly and because we had built up a relationship based on trust she was happy to attend everything I arranged for her.
Fast forward a couple of years and I had taken up a research post. I was interviewing families on a regular basis to establish how effective the services that they were receiving were and what they valued the most. They would frequently tell me things like: "Claire has been amazing, she really understands me, she doesn't patronise me and she does what she says she will" or, "Paul is wicked, he's just been a rock through everything over the last six months and he's the reason I've been able to stop drinking as he's helped and supported me every step of the way, most of all he believed in me so I could believe in myself ". These people were talking about the support workers who they had worked with. More often than not they attributed the positive change in their life to the support these workers had given them.
When I was evaluating services as part of my role as commissioning and planning officer the same themes came up. The hands-on support that people were being given from support workers was often what was valued the most. I've seen this across child protection, leaving care, family support, learning disabilities, disabled children and young people’s services and mental health services. Often these are the people making the difference on a day-to-day basis.
I was once told, "If Karen hadn't phoned me every day during that week I'd have killed myself, I'm still here because of her". I’ve never forgotten the impact that this person felt their support worker had on their life.
I'm not saying that other roles aren't important or valuable, of course they are. We are all cogs in a big system that aims to improve the outcomes of children and families, but I do feel that the role of, and certainly the potential impact of the support worker role is grossly undervalued.
What do you think? Are you a support worker? Have you received similar feedback?
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*Real names have been changed to protect identity*
Should Support Workers get paid less than a supermarket shelf stackers?