'I was stunned at the significant role of psychology in social work practice'

Martin Gosling on his alternative journey into psychology.

In 1998, whilst employed as an aircraft engineer in the Royal Navy, I started an Open University degree in Psychology. It may have been more appropriate for me to undertake Maths or Physics courses but I chose psychology as I felt I had a natural affinity toward the experience of human existence. So, rather than exploring aircraft fuel or hydraulic systems I started to explore human nature and I spent the next eight years reading books, completing assignments and undertaking examinations either in the UK or whilst deployed at sea on operations. When I first started reading I had no end goal other than to learn about things that interested me, but I completed the BSc and then the MSc.

As time passed I started trying to link what I was learning to my own professional environment and I found a substantial amount of research relating to human behaviour and the impact on decision making in aviation. Aircraft systems have been designed to reduce the likelihood of catastrophic failure but technological advances have illuminated the need to understand why humans may choose to by-pass built in safety features. At the time of my MSc dissertation, I noted how research was loaded toward understanding behaviours and relationships in the cockpit – this is because it is the pilot’s final action that may prevent an aircraft from crashing. But as my knowledge of safety culture expanded I understood the need to take a holistic, systemic approach that encompassed not just cockpit management but the social and psychological influences throughout all parts of the organisation from executive management to the new apprentice on the shop floor. This is because a systemic approach to safety management may help to identify latent (hidden) factors that contribute and precede a serious accident. Clearly, these principles of safety management don’t just apply to aviation but also to other safety critical industries, including my new career.

When I left the Royal Navy, my attempts to become a psychologist in the Ministry of Defence failed. My frustration grew but as I was a boxing coach I diverted my attention toward understanding competitive state anxiety and its impact on athletic performance. I was very aware that anxiety can put a boxer into a dark place where they may mentally lose a contest even before getting into the ring, so the psychology behind this provided me with a welcome distraction. However, after a relatively brief period I gained employment with the Dorset Youth Offending team where I was required to work as a Social Work Assistant with young people who had come to the attention of the police.

Work in the field of Youth Offending can be very fulfilling and the opportunity enabled me to broaden my knowledge and use psychology because I was required to tailor interventions to help young people achieve positive outcomes. Indeed, the need to establish the correct level of intervention is crucial as failure to do so, may actually make the situation worse. Furthermore, complex and high risk cases required a co-ordinated approach and because of this there was sometimes need to liaise with multi-agency professionals including police, educational and clinical psychologists, health professionals, social workers and probation officers. Over the three years I spent with the Youth Offending Team, I found my previous reading was becoming far more significant in terms of having the opportunity to apply it to a professional environment albeit different from the one I had experienced in naval aviation.

My time with Youth Offending ended when an opportunity arose for me to use my psychology degree and background experience to complete a Post Graduate Diploma that would let me register as a Social Worker. I completed the diploma at Bournemouth University: a great place where I enjoyed the company of outstanding tutors and student colleagues. The training required me to undertake two student placements in the Salisbury area of Wiltshire; one with the Education Welfare Service and one with a children’s safeguarding team. Both of these placements were very enjoyable experiences and I met some wonderful and unique characters. Crucially, these placements not only provided the opportunity to work with families going through challenging times but also the opportunity to link psychological theory with social work practice. Time on placement was split with periods at Bournemouth University where there was a need to consider different perspectives of human development and behaviour. At university I was stunned at the significant role of psychology in social work practice because to be an effective practitioner it is essential to have awareness of your own social and psychological construction. We can’t work with others if we don’t recognise our own weaknesses and prejudices.   

After completing university training, I took up a position with a children’s safeguarding team in Dorset. The work I undertake often requires me to understand families where domestic abuse, substance misuse or mental health issues have featured. To do this I must apply social and psychological research to achieve effective and accurate assessments that inform subsequent interventions. For example, understanding relationships is an essential aspect to assessment and support of families in crisis. There is a need to understand the person in the environment, be it with their immediate family or at a macro level with the wider community. Attachment and security are fundamental to emotional wellbeing and this is especially apparent in infants whom may display behaviours of secure or insecure attachments. The nature of the observed attachment may give insight into the relationships experienced by the parent and child that helps provide a focus for future work.

Like any work, there are highs and lows. Achieving a positive outcome for a child and their family is extremely satisfying and this may be by way of signposting the family to appropriate support services or in complex cases where there is a significant risk of serious harm, it may be the result of a multi-agency approach that involves direct work with family members. There are often challenges and in more complex cases there may be a need to address ‘disguised compliance’ or resistant behaviours that may deter positive change and culminate in persistent neglect or abuse of children’s needs. Such cases can be very frustrating and deeply worrying, especially where domestic abuse and violence is concerned. Linking research to practice is essential and in my limited experience of working with perpetrators of domestic abuse I have drawn on psychology and have found the trans-theoretical model of behavioural change as a useful concept for understanding the stages of change and the ‘position’ of the person on the path toward achieving sustained and positive change.

Social Work is a highly skilled job that builds with experience. To maintain registration as a Social Worker with the Health and Care Professions Council, I am required to carry out Continued Professional Development and this includes the need to reflect and continually link psychological research to professional practice. At a personal level and with the benefit of other professional experiences, I have continued to reflect on safety culture in aviation whilst comparing it to that of the social care environment. A systemic approach is an essential aspect of aviation safety because without it, when something bad happens the root cause will not be established and the failure will occur again. Reflection has led me to consider that the safety culture of social work is at a developmentally ‘immature’ stage in comparison to that of aviation and this is an area that urgently requires further specific research and one that I hope to be involved with one day.

In summary, my journey from engineer to Social Worker has been a long one. For many years I wanted to use my psychology degree to become a psychologist. I am not a chartered psychologist, however, the path I have taken has enabled me to use my reading and experiences to maximum effect whilst actively applying psychology on a daily basis. To be an effective Social Worker I must be an effective psychologist. Social work is an extremely tough profession and it does have a high burn-out rate. The work is emotionally demanding and a high degree of supervision is required to ensure continued, effective practice and emotional wellbeing of the practitioner. Peer group reflection and a sense of team cohesion are essential aspects to dealing with high caseloads in an environment of limited resources and these are daily challenges to many, if not all teams. But if you are wondering how you might apply psychology in a professional environment, a career in social work may be worth considering. 

- Martin Gosling is a Social Worker in Help and Protection, South Area Team, Weymouth, Dorset

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