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What research means for frontline social workers

two women dancing in community centre

Published: 11 November 2022

Dr Jenny Harlock is Assistant Professor at Warwick Medical School and Regional lead for Social Care for the NIHR Research Design Service (RDS) West Midlands. As part of the NIHR’s Your Path in Research campaign, she is writing about what research means for social care professionals, how it can help them build their careers and why she has signed up to be a Link and Learn mentor.

My research journey

I’m a firm believer that research can improve social care practice. I have been a full-time researcher for over 10 years but I began my own research journey over 15 years ago. Before I was a full-time researcher, I worked for Kent County Council and later for the National Care Forum and Voluntary Organisations Disability Group. I was especially curious about how voluntary, non-profit and community organisations could help improve services and their changing role in service delivery.

This curiosity propelled me to successfully apply for a funded, combined Masters and doctoral programme in order to explore this further. Later I successfully applied for an internship at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, to lead research into personalisation.

How research can improve social work practice

I am passionate about doing research that improves services for people and communities. Increasingly, social care and social work staff are required not only to provide high quality services, but to be able to demonstrate that what they do works. Research can help social care and social work staff evidence the value and effectiveness of what they do every day. It can provide evidence to inform the decisions that social workers make, and how practitioners make a difference to people’s lives. Being ‘research-minded’ can also inspire social care staff and social workers to be reflective about their practice, and engage critically with their professional standards and frameworks.

There are undoubtedly challenges of time, and historically there has not been a ‘culture’ of research within social care and social work practice. But I believe social workers and social care practitioners already have the skills and attributes to be excellent researchers: being curious about people, driven to make a difference, and unafraid of complexity. These are essential qualities for researchers, and have helped me in my own research journey.

There are also an increasing number of research opportunities that will allow practitioners to develop these skills further, whether as participants, helping to and deliver research projects, and using research findings in practice. The social care sector also has a huge amount it can teach the research community. Social workers are expert at engaging people with lived experience, including some of the most vulnerable and marginalised individuals in our society. Researchers increasingly want – and are expected - to work with people that use services, and their carers, to develop research that is relevant and reflects their needs and priorities. However, researchers sometimes struggle to engage with people appropriately. They can learn from social workers and social care staff how to design research that is inclusive and enriches the experiences of people and communities that are involved in it.

Link and Learn

That’s why I think the Link and Learn mentoring scheme being launched as part of the NIHR’s Your Path in Research campaign is a great opportunity. It brings researchers and social care practitioners together to exchange ideas and knowledge. Researchers can assist practitioners to navigate the research world and academic processes (such as ethics and research funding). Practitioners can share insights about the challenges and realities of doing research in practice, as well as the best ways to make research findings usable and accessible for the social care sector. There is great potential for both the research and practice community to benefit and share valuable insight into their respective industries.

There are also personal benefits too. Supporting others to grow their confidence and achieve their research goals is rewarding and fulfilling. Like many researchers, I have made mistakes, learnt lessons and had to adapt to challenges along the way. Sharing that learning and experience is important and can provide important insight when others are faced with inevitable challenges or potential pitfalls. Getting used to any new environment and way of doing things can be daunting. The Link and Learn mentoring scheme helps mentees embark on their research journey to understand more about research practice and how to get started.

The mentoring relationship is also a great way to build interpersonal, communication and problem-solving skills, and further professional development. Through the Link and Learn scheme, practitioners and researchers have opportunities to expand their professional networks and exchange fresh perspectives about the most important issues facing social work and the social care sector, and how to address them. I’ve signed up to be a Link and Learn mentor and am looking forward to meeting some of you and sharing ideas about how research can help improve the lives of people that use services, and those that care for them.

To sign up or to learn more about other NIHR programmes that can help you ‘add research to your CV’, visit the Your Path in Research webpage.

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