Good old-fashioned support work: a rose-tinted myth, a thought exercise, or a template for the future?

After a successful and thought-provoking event last month, showcasing the PTS Response, Jhoana Serna (JS), Head of PTS Coaching at Mayday Trust, sits down with Oliver Townsend (OT), Head of Partnerships and Practice at Platfform, to discuss strengths-based working and some of the ideas we hear a lot about. One of the things people share a lot is this idea of a return to “good, old-fashioned support work”, which is where this conversation begins.

OT: So, good, old fashioned support work – we both hear those words a lot about coaching. When we talk about strengths-based work, we’re often told it sounds like proper support work, and I was wondering what you thought? Do you think this idea has value, to what extent is it even true?

JS: First, I’d say that we need to look at what strengths-based work is. I believe it has some fundamental areas: showing someone you care, working with someone going through a rough patch, and really, deeply listening. It means offering solutions that will work for someone, because we’ve listened properly. This is where coaching sits.

Of course, more nuances have evolved since this “good old” time – a deeper understanding of trauma, the psychological layer and understanding. But in essence, we all go into this line of work because we care about people and what happens to them. So, is it as simple as old times good, new times bad? No.

We also have to understand what’s happening in the way we work with people, or more to the point, what has happened. If the core approach to support, by people, hasn’t changed – why does this idea of a golden age keep raising its head? For example, we’re looking at a Code of Ethics for coaching in a strengths-based way, alongside a good practice guide, and thinking about how that feels. Often, Coaches tell me their way of working can be hard to stick to, in a system that feels constraining and controlling. So what can get in the way? We’ve found lots of reasons surfacing – commissioning, outcomes, and the over-measurement of relationships in particular.

“Because when you start measuring relationships, you really lose the core beauty and variety of it. With a strengths-based approach, we are claiming some of that back.”

OT: I definitely agree with a lot of that. For me as an individual, there’s a very real danger in looking back with rose-tinted glasses and nostalgia. As part of the LGBT+ community, and as a disabled man, it’s obvious to me that our society has made massive progress. Yes, recent events can challenge that assumption, but the idea that support work was innately more progressive in the 80s feels like a mistake to me. But – for the general population, perhaps there was more space, more grey area to operate in. Fewer time constraints, less knee-jerk professionalisation, or sanitising unpleasant feelings and situations away, perhaps.

I wonder then whether it’s more of a way that people are framing this discussion. When people say “good old fashioned support work”, are they really saying that the 80s or 90s were glory days? Or are they saying that we’ve lost something along the way? In responses to risk, professionalisation, and commercialisation, have we missed something that used to be at the heart of support? That feels like a more comfortable question to look at.

So that might be: how do we maintain the compassion, the connection, the human joy of relationships, in the way we work? And is fear of getting it wrong, or overspending, or being overwhelmed by pressures on services, is that fear paralysing us?

JS: I think the fear point is a good one, but also, I think we can end up in a cycle of blame and recrimination. It’s important to offer that same compassion to commissioners and funders. We are all running around trying to hold together a breaking or broken system, and using the tools we have available to do that. It’s exhausting for everyone, and you can end up with different models and approaches around, all trying to do the same thing. We see that with different coaching models, for example. We looked at social work, counselling and life coaching, and tried to map that to our ethical framework for coaching. We took what we liked about different coaching approaches – what matches, what contradicted. For example, all three had that element of person-led autonomy, and valuing people’s progression. It was also really interesting how these approaches all had an element of challenging injustice. But how often do we really see that?

“When you’re overwhelmed delivering services in a scarcity system, can you really find the space to shake the foundations?”

OT: It’s interesting – I know you’ve spoken before about the challenge of some boundaries in our system. I’ve heard support workers say before that boundaries can get in the way of person-led work. Do you have any reflections on that?

JS: I think we’ve become scared to be human. Recently, one of our coaches worked with someone who passed away, with no next of kin. He wasn’t going to get a funeral – was going to be cremated, and it was going to go without marking a life.

So we pulled together funding for a funeral. It felt like honouring his life was so important. We invited people across his life to the funeral. One person told us that she was only allowed to spend five hours in a six-month period with this person – boundaries put in place to ration services got in the way. She only just about got permission to attend a funeral. There’s something seriously wrong in a world where we can’t mark someone’s life as human beings. How do you quantify that value of a life?

It’s also deeply personal to me. An elderly family member of mine was a social worker, and if there was a family in need or an issue, she would take someone home and take care of them. It got to the point where she’d take someone home for a shower if needed, she took on a lodger as well.

“We’ve become so risk averse, it’s as if someone becomes criminalised or risky the moment they enter a service. But who are we really protecting? Boundaries come up to protect the organisation.”

This all just puts up barriers and stops us from seeing people as human. As a support worker, I’ve hugged people, and bumped into people in small communities when out and about. I’ve introduced them to my daughter. This is my community, and that person is a member of that community.

OT: It makes me think, a lot. One of my family friends is a GP and no one bats an eyelid when he is out and about and sees people he knows. He’d give informal advice sometimes – and it was his community, he’d been a GP there for decades, and he’d been with families through birth, illness and death. It’s interesting though because he’s now retired and he talks a lot about – you guessed it! – good old fashioned general practice. It’s such a common theme across our services that there must be some common factors at play. In a sense, we’ve lost the ability to be human and relational.

But it is also really important to remember to challenge that. Yes, I fully agree we’ve become very transactional, we’ve lost something very important in services. But also there’ve been big positive developments. For example, I flinched a little about a person going behind a service’s back and taking a lodger. Don’t get me wrong I would have probably done the same at the time – but there’ve been some very important changes in our systems that are there to prevent abuse, manipulation or exploitation. It’s a very difficult balance.

“But this is where I get on my soapbox. Because crucially, as well as the importance of being human, what we really mean when we talk about “good old fashioned” services, is that we miss a society where we were more connected to each other, and to our local communities.”

In many senses, we experience too many boundaries on one side and not enough on others. Because professional boundaries keep us safe from burnout. When services are underfunded, you are tempted to do more than you are humanly capable of doing.

So what is it we are really missing? If we go back to the “good old-fashioned days”, there was more of a social fabric – social housing, industries in local communities, and resources for people to share. Perhaps that reflects that the system was not as broken then. Everything now can seem so fragmented. Society has been forced to develop in a way that certain things are not in place anymore. Again, it wasn’t perfect. If you were part of any marginalised communities, your experiences were not the same as others – but that idea of a lost community is so strong across all our services.

Given the context – of lost communities, and broken systems, do you have a view on how effective strengths-based working can actually be in challenging the system and advocating for change?

JS: I see it as a vital part of the challenge. We listen deeply to people, and increasingly not just individuals but communities. And because you are truly listening, you are seeing more of the picture. Because you can understand more, you are exposing and seeing the systemic barriers in various sectors. In that sense, you are navigating the system with people.

We wrote a blog with a young woman who got herself out of sector accommodation, and during that process, we realised that there’s not a huge amount of awareness of what happens when you enter the homelessness conveyor belt. This allowed us to challenge the sector, to have their experience validated and made real. Once you have a collection of voices and amplify those, it is a real challenge to various systems.

Change in our lifetime has been so important. Not sure if this fully answers the question – but it is important to give people space to explore, be heard, and be validated. Empowering people to use the conveyor belt, or get off it, to their own advantage.

OT: I think that’s an excellent place to finish –

“…this idea that maybe it isn’t about whether strengths-based support work is good old fashioned, or newly fashioned, but that whatever we do and however we do it, we use our practice to prioritise the voices and experiences of people we work with. I think that’s something that’s quite radical still.”

JS: To put people front and centre, and to get out of the way as much as we can.