Collaborations in Social Work – How to Effectively Serve Clients Through Teamwork
As executive director of Disability Rights Tennessee, social worker Lisa Primm manages lawyers and relies on information from researchers, analysts, community leaders and other social workers to do her job.
“There’s no way that I could do this job in a vacuum,” Primm said. “I rely constantly on others who are in other professions, who have other types of knowledge in order to inform the work that I do.”
The ability to work on a team and collaborate effectively is a necessary skill to succeed in the field of social work. Whether they are working at a macro level to pass legislation to improve public health or providing direct client care, social workers at all levels often find themselves collaborating with different stakeholders.
Those stakeholders can include:
Clients: Individuals or communities.
Close client support system: Family members or members of the community.
Extended client support system: Experts from other disciplines.
What Are the Benefits of Collaboration in Social Work?
For social workers, there are a number of advantages to working collaboratively:
Greater knowledge. Different team members can bring their individual expertise to the group, ensuring that any problems are addressed from all angles and there are no blind spots when considering how to tackle a challenge. Allowing various professionals to contribute ideas creates opportunity for innovation.
Shared responsibility. Social work is challenging. Being able to rely on others to help shoulder the responsibilities of the job ensures that individuals don’t burn out. Clients also benefit from having a larger support system.
Greater resources. Partners have access to different tools. Pooling resources can reduce costs for individuals and ensure that teams work efficiently.
Fewer professional barriers. Bureaucracy, protocols and procedures are easier to navigate with team members who have existing relationships with agencies and organizations.
Why Is Collaboration Important?
As Primm explained, social workers often can’t solve problems alone.
While social workers play important roles connecting clients to appropriate resources to address challenges in their lives, they are still limited in their perspective. There are likely many people in a client’s life who have pertinent information about their circumstances that will help a social worker deliver the services needed.
“There’s so much going on behind the scenes before you even see a child being taken from a home,” said Cornell Davis III, a child welfare social worker in Pennsylvania.
The collaboration does not end there. If it is determined that a home situation is dangerous, social workers need to provide the resources to ensure that a child moves to a safe situation. That can require working with local agencies to find temporary housing or reuniting the child with a parent who may need help finding a stable job or housing.
Cooperation and collaboration aren’t just recommended for social workers; they are, in many cases, a routine part of the job.
What Is Interdisciplinary Collaboration?
Interdisciplinary collaboration is also an important aspect of social work. This occurs when a team of specialists from different helping disciplines, such as psychiatry, psychology, counseling, medicine and public health, join the social worker to provide services to a client. Specialists may have the authority to perform tasks outside the social worker’s qualifications.
Why Is Interdisciplinary Collaboration Important?
Social workers perform a variety of functions; some serve as advocates, while others are licensed to provide mental health treatment. However, there are specialists in other helping disciplines who have the authority to perform tasks beyond the social worker’s qualifications that are necessary to improve outcomes for clients.
A physician may be able to provide medical treatment for a client, but that client and their family may still struggle with the financial costs related to treatment. Social workers can advocate for families, inform them of their options and connect them to financial assistance.
Ultimately, the client needs both perspectives to receive the care to address their challenges.
“Interdisciplinary collaborations are important because systems and people are vast and complex, so it’s almost arrogant to think that you can see everything that your client needs from just your perspective,” Davis said.
What Are the Challenges of Interdisciplinary Collaboration?
Because their training and education varies, each partner in an interdisciplinary collaboration may have different approaches and expectations, which can lead to a number of challenges, including:
Disagreement. Different disciplines have different processes, and rigidity can be an obstacle.
Territoriality. When an individual or group aggressively takes credit for ideas or initiatives, it can foster frustration. True partners share credit.
Distraction. A change in a client’s condition can shift attention to smaller problems, leaving more serious problems unresolved.
Breaking from status quo. Previous successes or failures prevent creative thinking. “What has always worked” or “what didn’t work last time” reduces incentive to explore other possibilities.
How Social Workers Can Facilitate Collaboration
When social work collaboration produces positive results for the client, everyone wins.