• by Siobhan Maclean
  • 02nd Nov 2019

Towards an understanding of professional love

Over the last week there has been little else on my mind and so I wanted to put my thoughts to paper (or screen) to see if I could draw together aspects of my work and experiences to think about what professional love might look like. Ruth Allen’s excellent definition of social work (which I have on a BASW Tea towel!) firmly placed thoughts about love back on my agenda:

“Social work is about life, treasuring humanity, building connections, sharing and promoting fairness. It is about creativity, care and love – being there to help people overcome obstacles and oppression that hold them, back. For people using our services, a social worker should be someone to trust and believe in – someone who helps you believe in yourself. Sometimes we must hold boundaries, protect rights, advocate and challenge. We are always in the midst of the messy stuff, finding ways forward.”

In workshops where I explore what social work is, this is the definition that always prompts the most discussion. Participants are often surprised by the inclusion of the word love. I have been left wondering why. I started my journey in social work 33 years ago and to me it is, and always has been, all about love.

I have been incredibly fortunate in recent years to develop a friendship with Paul Yusuf McCormack. Paul was on the organising committee for the recent Care Experienced Conference and I enjoyed hearing about the development of the conference and watching the incredible work that went into the conference (work which is ongoing in promoting the messages of the conference.) The number one message is:

“We need more love in the care system, including displays of positive physical affection.”

Connecting, through twitter with people like @sarasiobhan, @PaulaMc007 and @JeremyH09406697 I have been horrified by the way in which family love has been ignored, hindered and undermined by professionals. The absolute scandal of Assessment and Treatment Units (ATUs) is haunting my thoughts and reminding me so much of my early career working in those dreadful old long stay hospitals supporting people to move into their own homes with tailored support. I had to fight at times to support people to move in with people they loved, sometimes platonically and sometimes romantically. I was so committed to, and aware of, love at that point of my career and I have been left wondering recently “have I lost that?” Indeed, “have we lost our understanding of love as a profession?”

People in social work mostly know me for my work around theory and practice and there is little theory around professional love for us to connect with practice. So, I have tried to put some thought into this, and I hope the following might help us, as a profession, to debate the role of love in social work practice. What does ‘professional love’ really look like?

Social pedagogy has such a lot to offer us as social workers, particularly in terms of relationships-based work, so it makes sense to start there when looking at professional love. The three Ps are drawn from social pedagogy, but to address issues of the digital age I find it helpful to add a fourth P. So, as I see it, each of us has four Ps:

A Private self

A Personal self

A Professional self

A Public self

In my career (and personal life) I have often drawn on an understanding of the four Ps, for example in thinking about work life balance and social work boundaries, but it was perhaps when I was on ‘the other side’ of professional intervention that they made the most sense to me.

Six years ago, I had a stroke and lost the ability to read and write. As part of my recovery I regularly visited an orthoptist. Each time I went to see her she would point to her badge as she re-introduced herself. I realised at that point that, although I couldn’t read, I could recognise logos. She had two logos on her badge – NHS and HCPC. Of course, I said to her “I am registered with HCPC too” (to be honest I told her lots of times!) she never asked me anything about that and would just move onto the next part of her testing. It was only much later that I learnt this had been used as an example of what was diagnosed as a stroke related communication problem (repetitive communication lacking purpose). It might have been repetitive, but it certainly did not lack purpose. I was desperately trying, in a time of real personal crisis, to reclaim my professional P. When you are in hospital you are stripped of all your P’s and simply become a different kind of P - a patient.

In fact, it wasn’t professional support that helped me to relearn those reading skills. It was personal love. My husband taught me to read in a new way and my daughters, without complaint, sat for hours listening to me reading aloud (usually blogs from @RobMitch92 and @ElaineLJames) Since the 4Ps have been so helpful to me in reflecting on aspects of social work, and my life, I wonder if they might offer us something to begin in building a theoretical framework around professional love?

Private love is that intimate love that we may be lucky enough to experience. I love my husband deeply, but much of that love sits in my private P. It is intimate. Personal love is that love that we have for our family and friends. I love my children unconditionally. It is a personal love.

Public love to me isn’t about public displays of affection (publicly demonstrating the personal and private loves) although I suppose it could mean that. To me, the public domain is often played out on social media. Facebook has a “love” button and I see people loving stuff all over the place, often indiscriminately. Does it really mean anything at all?

That leaves us with professional love. An understanding of professional love can be drawn from reflecting on what love means across each of the other Ps and thinking about how this interacts with the boundaries that we must maintain. When I was younger there was a cartoon that became very popular, starting ‘love is’, so in a kind of homage to that here are my suggestions:

PROFESSIONAL LOVE IS: • Creating a human connection • Demonstrated through behaviours that show kindness and compassion • Devoting time and attention to people • Valuing and celebrating differences and similarities • Listening – I mean really listening • Honest and open communication • Trying to understand something from the perspective of the other person • Acknowledging all the different types of love in a person’s life and building on this • Understanding that conflict will occur, and that this is sometimes a good thing. Conflict can be cathartic in love – it highlights where there might be problems and helps us to work on this. • Action – love isn’t demonstrated simply through what you say it is mostly about what you do • Not something to be commoditised and measured through some kind of tick box – the only measurement of professional love is about how someone feels.

Most of us know the power of love in our lives whether that is in our private or our personal P. We should, as professionals be skilled enough to draw on what that looks like (and maybe more importantly what it feels like) to enact professional love in practice.

Another important P in professional love is recognising the privilege of what we do. I often see social workers complaining about our “lot”. We have great privilege in being able to come into peoples lives at times of crisis and great need. I can guarantee that our “lot” is much better than the people we work with. Professional love involves never forgetting the privilege we have. If we focus solely on what is difficult about our job, we risk becoming cynical about practice and surely professional love will have no chance. Next year I will celebrate 30 years since I qualified as a social worker. I love being a social worker. There have been many changes since I qualified, but that love has never wavered. Recently I was at a conference where a speaker said, “Social work is changing. Not by revolution but by evolution”. Maybe we need revolution – a revolution of professional love!