The Disengaged Support Worker

What is the secret to providing great person-centred support? I’ll start with a good example of what it is not before revealing what I see as the one key ingredient we all need, in any role in social care, if we want to provide great support that values and respects the people we support.

I was recently at a pub with a colleague, having a casual work chat. Then two people with learning disabilities entered with their support worker. The three of them sat there in silence for 30 minutes, each with a coke, while the support worker scrolled through their phone. Then they left.

Similarly, at the church where my office is located, they hold a wonderful lunch club every Thursday for people with learning disabilities. It’s a joyful and welcoming atmosphere, with delicious food and occasional bursts of singing and dancing. However, recently, a support worker blatantly pulled out a copy of The Metro and held it up in front of their face, completely engrossed, while everyone else around them dined and chatted. It was done so unapologetically that it made me wonder if they even realized how inappropriate it was. Perhaps they just didn’t care. Maybe their workplace fosters a culture where this kind of behavior is normal.

But in both cases, it would have not cost a single penny more to add so much value to the activity they were supporting for the person. Is ‘funding’ the reason we can’t provide excellent support these days? I don’t buy it when I see things like this happen.

The ideal person-centred support worker

Let’s move on to practical solutions. Instead let’s put away our newspaper and phone and chat with the people you’re supporting and socialize with others at the event. It doesn’t require any money to show you value their time and enjoy their company.

This situation reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago and continues to be one of my most popular posts where I categorize support workers into one of six types.

(Here’s the original post ‘The six types of support worker’)

These support workers are as classic a ‘Type Four’ as I’ve seen.

Person-centred support doesn’t cost any extra

To be clear, to be a really great support worker doesn’t cost a penny and doesn’t require special skills or a certain personality type. Therefore it’s something we can all become.

Here’s the breakdown:

‘The six types of support worker’ – which one are you?

A good person-centred support worker empowers you to lead a good life, especially if you have a learning disability or other support needs.

They help you with day-to-day tasks, connect you to your community, and support you in developing and maintaining friendships, finding work, pursuing hobbies, and anything else important to you.

They should be the person to help you with day-to-day parts of your life and supporting you to connect in to your community, develop and maintain friendships and relationships, helping you find work, pursue your hobbies and anything else that is important to you.

Having worked in social care for over 30 years and interacted with many support workers, I’ve identified six main types.

This article isn’t to knock support workers either, instead it’s celebrating those brilliant ones who fall into the category that I believe all support workers need to be. And it’s challenging all the other ones to do better.

And if it annoys you and you recognise yourself in the poor behaviours, then I say, “Good! It won’t cost you a penny to change your ways, and you can start right now!

What kind of support worker are you?

Type 1) The clock watcher

This type of support worker shows up and might even join in the fun but in watching the clock they’re sticklers and will ‘encourage’ the people they are supporting to go home when it gets to 9pm (even going to the lengths of taking people off the dance floor mid tune).

Therefore they don’t seem aware (or won’t challenge) that making people leave before they want to is wrong. They’re probably a lovely person, but just don’t get it. A product of poor training and poor leadership.

Type 2) The Frustrated Follower

These well-intentioned support workers get stuck in a system that limits their choices.

Therefore, they know leaving early is wrong, but the system pressures them into silence. Because of this they won’t challenge the status quo or speak up. Instead, they go along with things knowing it’s wrong.

Perhaps they once valued promoting choice, but their workplace culture eroded those ideals.

We know there are loads of great support workers out there working in settings where there just isn’t flexibility around shift patterns and know that they also find this incredibly frustrating.

This lack of flexibility likely stems from a team culture with weak leadership, possibly due to constraints from senior management.

These support workers face a difficult work-life balance, forced to act against their judgment, ethics and morals.

Type 3) The maverick (the person-centred activist)

These champions of change recognize their team’s toxic culture. They fight for what’s right, relentlessly challenging colleagues in meetings.

Expect them to become unpopular, labeled mavericks, for their constant challenges.

They might face pressure to find somewhere else to work. Importantly, their persistence could become a burden for the team if unwilling to adapt.

Of course, they may be just the sort of leadership the team is looking for and be that person who can support a manager to introduce a positive culture and enable great things to happen. That’s if their manager and colleagues are open-minded about changing things.

4) Mr or Ms Elsewhere

Another easily spotted support worker at disability clubs, cafes, and community groups is the ‘I’d rather be somewhere else’ type of person. They drain energy and life from any event and are easily identifiable.

They’re glued to their phones, oblivious to the events around them, just waiting to clock out.

These support workers need to re-evaluate their career choice. It’s likely their team suffers from poor leadership again. Maybe they lack support and training, leading them to forget their role entirely. This work clearly doesn’t fulfill them.

These disengaged workers wield surprising power. They crush people’s choices and drain the fun with their contagious apathy.

Don’t mistake this kind of person with the respectful and brilliant kind of worker who asks someone how they would like to be supported: would they prefer to dance together or have some space while they dance with their friends? Their intuition leads them to the empowering approach in this type of situation. They’re not too hard to spot though, they won’t be on their phone, they’ll be chatting to somebody else. They are exactly like the ‘Party Starter’ in their attitude to their work.

And that brings me to the ‘party starter’, what I see as the best kind of support worker and one who is being supported in their work to support people to lead the life they want in a great culture…

5) The party starter – the ideal person-centred person

These rockstar support workers are the kind who completely elevate any event. They’re fully present, ready to do anything focussed on maximum enjoyment.

Two women dancing in club, person-centred support

Forget phones! They’re laser-focused on fun, actively asking how the person they support wants to spend the evening.

These energetic support workers who adore their jobs get people dancing and stay until the person they support are ready to leave. For group events, they actively help people connect with others, maybe facilitating coffee chats – the natural ingredients that build friendships and communities. They view fostering connections as a core aspect of their role.

Skilled managers who lead by example are the norm here. This fosters a positive team culture where staff go above and beyond because they understand the true meaning of their work.

They just naturally know how to be person-centred in everything they do, because it’s not about them!

6) The unknown support worker

These support workers are a mystery – always absent from events and missing from the community scene. They have to exist, but their whereabouts remain a complete enigma.

They support those who never show up at events or integrate into the community.

Radio silence – they never explain why they shut down our requests for flexible support yet wield immense power through sheer inaction.

Their actions (or lack thereof) raise countless questions. What is their daily routine? How do they justify their minimal support? We yearn for answers.

Their silence speaks volumes. Despite their immense influence, they offer no explanation for their lack of commitment to better supporting people.

Supporting actual choice and a good life

Stay Up Late isn’t about late nights! It’s about empowering you to choose your bedtime. If you lack control over that, other areas of your life are likely lacking support too.

Limited choices in one area often reflect a lack of support in others – friendships, love, jobs, and ultimately, a good life. That’s where we come in.

Living a good life – that’s what it’s all about.

Qualities of a Great Support Worker

Now that we understand the what makes a great support worker let’s discuss the most important quality that gives you that x-factor, the Jedi skill that makes you that rockstar amongst support workers.

What is that special thing that we need? How can you be that person who truly gets their role’s importance? Therefore being a positive force in the life of the people you support.

Ditch the phone! Be present, show genuine interest, and actively support someone in living their best life.

The one thing you do need to be truly person-centred

Above all else what you need doesn’t cost a penny – all it takes is genuine care and showing you value their company.

That’s the essence of a Party Starter. They bring their A-game, dedicating their time solely to the person they support.

It’s not about them, it’s entirely about the person they’re supporting.

In short, you don’t need to be a dance champion, an extrovert, or the life and soul of the party. It’s much easier than that.

All you need to do is to actually give a shit. It’s that simple!

Read Is Person-centred Planning Delivering? Our Simple Way To Supercharge It

Are you a silent Type 6 support worker who wants to speak out?

Do you have other stories you’d like to share?

Or maybe tell us why you can’t be the support worker you’d love to be.

Read more about culture change in social care

Culture Shifts in Social Care: Our Radically Free Approach – breaking down the barriers to inclusion.

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Paul Richards Executive Director, Stay Up Late

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