MSEBA, PRECIOUS (2017). 'Social work education and professional wellbeing in South Africa: Student perspectives' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.



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Institutional Affiliation: PhD Fellow, Centre for Research on Higher Education and Development (CRHED), University of the Free State, South Africa 

Category: Young scholar meets senior scholar session


Title: Social work education and professional wellbeing in South Africa: Student perspectives



South Africa has an extended history of social problems such as high poverty levels and persistent inequality. In 2011, about 23 million people were living in poverty, and the majority of them were black (Statistics South Africa, 2014). Social arrangements such as education can help address these problems. Recent research on higher education and development has shown how this could be done. This research has demonstrated that although we live in a world dominated by neoliberal thinking, higher education should not only focus on improving individual and national economic performances, but also on addressing questions of human development, poverty alleviation and the development of a just and sustainable society (Walker & McLean 2013; Boni, & Walker, 2013). Scholars such as Walker and McLean (2013) highlight the fact that higher education should also produce public-good professionals who can attend to social problems such as poverty and inequality. Social work education and practice fit within the framework of public-good professionalism. It is one of the ways of dealing with social challenges. As a practice, social work seeks to promote, maintain and restore the social functioning and promote social justice of individuals, families, groups, communities, organizations and society at large, with special emphasis on vulnerable populations (Dulmus, &Sowers,2012).

However, recent studies have shown that social workers may fail to offer effective interventions because of threats to their own wellbeing. Scholars have particularly emphasized the point that because social workers work with traumatized populations they are exposed to secondary trauma, burn out, compassion fatigue and lack of self-care, all of which may hinder their ability to effectively perform their jobs (McGarrigle, & Walsh, 2011). This underscores the importance of professional wellbeing in public-good social work practice. The question then is: what can be done to prepare social workers to deal not only with challenges similar to those posed by secondary trauma, but also to broadly enhance their wellbeing, so that they can contribute to improved well-being more broadly? This study proposes that higher education should promote professional wellbeing which is integral to public-good professionalism. This is especially important in the case of social workers because, as highlighted above, professional wellbeing or lack of it affects their abilities to perform their duties effectively. This entails promoting their wellbeing related capabilities through higher education. As highlighted by Boni and Walker (2013), a focus on capabilities implies wider benefits from education than economic ones. These would include the advancement of wellbeing, freedom of individuals and the promotion of social justice.

This paper draws from my PhD project entitled Social work education and professional wellbeing in South Africa: a capability approach.  In its entirety, the project examines how social work education can enhance professional wellbeing in a way that leads to effective public-good interventions. The full PhD includes interviews with ten final year social work students, six practicing social workers and four faculty members from one university in South Africa to understand how professionals conceive wellbeing, its connection to their ability to effectively perform their work and how it can be promoted through education. In this paper, I focus on student perspectives. The paper starts with the assumption that social work can play a significant role in promoting social and economic equality through its commitment to social justice and human rights (Lombard, & Twikirize,2014). As an academic field of study and a profession, social work is globally understood to be a discipline that promotes social change, cohesion, and development, as well as the empowerment and liberation of disadvantaged people. Accordingly, social work education focuses on the attainment of knowledge and competencies to accomplish these goals. However, recent studies have shown that social workers’ wellbeing achievement or lack of it affects their ability to contribute towards sustainable social, economic and human development. Using the capabilities approach, this qualitative study critically examines how social work education can enhance the achievement of professional wellbeing and aspirations. The study identifies a range of relevant, professional wellbeing capabilities. It draws from interviews with ten final year social work students from one university in South Africa, to understand how they conceive professional wellbeing, its connection to their ability to effectively perform their work and how it can be promoted through social work education. The findings suggest that professional wellbeing can be understood in terms of one’s ability to help and make sustainable life changes among services recipients and/or personal-material achievements. The study identified the following capabilities as key for students’ sustainable professional livelihoods: patience, relationship management, time management, reflexivity, self-awareness and diligence. It also suggests that, to foster these capabilities social work educators should adopt different learning and teaching approaches. These include in-class discussions and seminars on what students’ value both as professionals and private individuals, a module as well as tutorials or focus groups on work related challenges and self-care, among others. These suggestions will be discussed during interviews with social work educators and practicing social workers to get additional perspectives on their applicability. The findings of this study might help educationists and policymakers to formulate policies that are sensitive to professional wellbeing and will lead to sustainable human development and social change.




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