What's it really like?
Sheila is 51 and works as a support worker for a charity based in Bolton. She gives us the inside story…
I have been working as a support work for the past five years, helping clients who are working in prostitution; before that I spent over ten years working in a hostel supporting women and children and I continue to support some of the women I met in my previous job in my present role. In a typical day at work I offer clients support with practical issues such as housing, benefits, budgeting and life skills. I regularly attend child protection meetings, accompany women at other agency meetings and collate data and statistics. Two evenings per week I co-ordinate a centre for sex workers, as well as a drop in session one afternoon a week which offers support and advice to women, particularly concerning housing issues. I also offer emotional and practical support to women in a local hostel and do regular home visits to women who have difficulties with daily living.
The best aspects about my job are being able to help people and have a positive influence on their lives. I enjoy meeting lots of different people and it is really rewarding when somebody manages to turn their life around. On the downside, I find meetings about child protection issues very difficult and there have been times when people I have worked with have died, which is just heartbreaking.
To someone thinking of doing this job I would advise them to be prepared for the hard work that dealing with people in a crisis brings. You must be a level headed person who can get on with vulnerable, sometimes violent or verbally aggressive people. Many people say to me “I’d love to do what you do-working with prostitutes”. Some people seem to see this as a ‘glamour job’. It is a brilliant job and I love it but I’d say to people ‘get real’ and be prepared to get your hands dirty.
I don’t expect to move jobs after this as I really enjoy what I do. For me, the next stop will be retirement!
Support workers provide emotional and practical support to individuals and their families who struggle to live independently because of health issues, emotional problems or relationship difficulties.
Support workers work with individuals and their families providing practical and emotional support according to their specific difficulties. Typically, clients include people with physical, mental or learning disabilities, those who are struggling with drug or alcohol addictions, vulnerable children or adults, young offenders, or those suffering from marital or other relationship difficulties. The main aim of a support worker is to help clients learn to live as independently as possible, by identifying and supporting them in their particular areas of need. They may work with clients who have short term care needs or those with longer term or lifelong difficulties. The needs of a support worker’s clients vary depending on the specifications of their role; they may work in the community, in a home support role or specifically with clients who have mental health problems. Support workers usually work with several clients at one time, either on their own or as a group, depending on the needs of the client.
Typically, support workers start on a salary of around £17,000 per year, although this can be much lower depending on the employer and nature of the support work. Support worker salaries generally increase to £26,500 with significant experience, and support workers working in a managerial capacity can expect to earn up to £33,500.
The responsibilities of a support worker vary depending on the needs of the individual client. Typically they include:
- Assessing the practical and emotional needs of a client and drawing up a care plan
- Providing emotional support by talking to clients and listening to their problems and concerns
- Assisting with domestic tasks such as cooking, cleaning, washing and shopping
- Helping clients to budget and handle money
- Helping clients participate in leisure activities
- Advising clients on practical issues
- Helping clients to apply for disability grants and other financial benefits
- Counselling clients through an alcohol or drug addiction
- Supporting women working in the sex industry
- Helping clients get suitable housing
- Leading meetings in residential or community centres about issues relevant to clients
- Co-ordinating drop-in sessions for clients
- Making case notes and completing a log book
- Accompanying clients in meetings with other agencies and healthcare professionals
- Training clients in life skills
- Collating data and statistics and undertaking administrative duties
- Working with clients' families to help them to support clients in the most effective way possible
- Liaising with other support workers, social workers and relevant members of the health care profession
- Attending meetings and training courses with colleagues
There are no specific qualifications needed for being a support worker; it is more important to be interested in helping others and to have an empathetic approach to people, regardless of their problems. A GNVQ or similar qualification in health and social care or related subject will always be a big advantage for getting work as a support worker and employees are usually required to have a GCSE (grade A – C) in English and maths.
- An interest in people and a commitment to helping others
- The ability to communicate clearly and sensitively with vulnerable people and their families
- A knowledge of the emotional and practical difficulties a client may face
- Good listening skills
- An empathetic approach to clients
- The ability to gain the trust of clients and their families and to build good relationships with vulnerable people
- The ability to carry out practical and domestic duties
- Good leadership skills
- Good problem solving abilities
- An organised, efficient and flexible approach to the job
- The ability to work independently and as part of a team
- A knowledge of changing standards and codes of conduct in the social care sector
- A commitment to equal opportunities
- Time management skills and the ability to meet the needs of several clients at one time
- A high level of patience and emotional resilience
- A non-judgmental attitude regardless of the client's needs or situation
- The ability to communicate with other healthcare and social work professionals
- Good written communication skills
- Basic IT skills
- A respect for client confidentiality
The working conditions for a support worker vary, depending whether they work in the community or in a residential home. Most support workers are employed on a shift basis, which can include night-time, evening, on-call and weekend work. Support workers usually work 37 hours a week although part time roles are widely available. The job largely involves working with clients but there are elements of the role which are office based so support workers need to be able to work professionally in different environments. Given the nature of the job, being a support worker can be emotionally challenging and very stressful, requiring emotional resilience and the ability to work calmly and sensitively, regardless of the situation.
Experience is vital for finding work as a support worker as the job depends on employees being able to relate well to a wide variety of people with different emotional and physical needs. Any experience working in a health care or support capacity is looked on favourably by employers. This could include working as a care assistant in a hospital or nursing home, working in a school for children with learning disabilities or volunteering for a charity or community group which works with vulnerable people.
Support workers are in high demand and there are good job prospects across the UK. Support workers usually work for a local authority’s social services department but alternatively they may work for an independent charity or organisation. Support workers can work in a residential or nursing home or within the community, visiting people in residential or supported housing.
There are plenty of opportunities available for support workers to progress in the field, although the availability of professional development courses does depend on the local authority. Many authorities offer support workers the chance to work towards an NVQ, SVQ or degree in a related subject (e.g. mental health) whilst working, which may allow them to progress to the role of senior support worker or a managerial position with experience. Local authorities may also provide day-long training opportunities such as first aid training or child protection courses which help support workers stay up-to-date with changing professional standards in the social care sector.