Professional Identity & Self-concept of Estonian Social Workers
Acta Universitatis Tamperensis,
No. 1531


By Tila Tamm
July 2010
Tampere University Press
Distributed By Coronet Books
ISBN: 9789514481147
203 pages
$82.50 Paper Original

After decades of forced interruption the social work profession development started again in 1990´s. Since then social work is a rapidly developing profession in Estonian society. Now, when there is more than fifteen years of work practice, professional development and academic teaching, it is time to research how social workers experience self-development and development of social work profession.

The theoretical framework of this research ties together different conceptions of social workers self and professional self context, professional growth and factors supporting it and development of social work profession in society. Important models and theories in this research are London and Mone´s (1987) three-dimensional interpretation of factors motivating professional growth (with professional identity as one dimension of thereof), conceptions of development of professional identity and professional growth according to Dubin (1990), Farr and Middlebrooks (1990), Maurer and Tarulli (1994), Ruohotie (1995, 1999), Ruohotie?s (2005) theory of growth-oriented atmosphere and model of Lord, Brown and Freiberg (1999) about working self-concept.

The study goal is to describe the development of professional identity and opportunities for professional growth of social workers and get an overview of the self-concept tendencies of social workers and social work students; understand how social workers perceive the development of a new profession based on their experiences.

The sample (N=122) consisted of social workers that had received academic education in the Tallinn University (N1=41/vilistlased), undergraduate students of the Open University engaged in practical social work, who one month after participating in the survey graduated from the university with a BA degree (N2=52/lõpetajad) and future social workers, first year social work students (N=29/statsionaar). The criterion for inclusion in the sample was academic vocational education from the Tallinn University.

The present research is descriptive multi-strategy research, where the first part of the research is survey type and the second part is based on theme interviews and covers the conceptions of social workers about their development to professional social workers and development of the social work profession in Estonian society.

Survey data were analyzed by using statistical methods (factor analysis, bivariate correlation, variance analysis) in order to describe and explain relation between self-concept and professional identity of social workers; and to find the differences between the sample groups. Survey results show that social workers´ and social work students´ self-concept components are empathy, innovativeness, self-confidence and need of achievement. These self-identity components are extremely suitable for shaping the social workers professional identity. Professional-self of social workers is characterized by commitment to work, professional growth, willingness to take risk and ability to cooperate. They also feel togetherness and strong commitment to collective (work team). All above mentioned characteristics form the basis for the development of professional identity of social workers.

The qualitative data added depth and context to the results of survey. On the basis of the conceptions of social workers, the qualitative content analysis brought out eight main categories and fifty-three subcategories. These categories show professional identity elements of social workers and different aspects of their work on the basis of conceptions of social workers about their experiences of their personal development and the development of social work profession in the newly independent Estonia.

Respondents have all experienced stress and as social work is stressful to psyche, the workers? psychosocial coping should not be just their personal work problem. However, the organizational support mechanisms (such as supervision services) are not available for everyone and therefore social workers have only few personal coping strategies at their disposal support from the colleagues (who are also burdened) or family and network of friends. Too often, work difficulties also bring social workers too often to the limits of their endurance there is too much bureaucracy and politicization.

Research results describe social workers as innovative and ready to take risks enterprising people with strong self-confidence and strong need for achievement. Surprisingly, the features remind one of successful entrepreneurs in the business field. All this might be explained by the fact that in our society both social system and social work profession are in developmental phase, the well-organised system waits yet to be established. During the developmental phase the people participating in the process have more opportunities to find different workable solutions but they also have to be more creative and driven to implement a vision.

Based on my research results it may be concluded that in the future social work may be threatened by lack of recognition. Social workers are often left alone with their heavy workload and they do not receive necessary understanding and support from their organization nor society in general (lack of recognition is proved by the relatively low level of salaries). As there is a clear need of professionals in social work, the society and organizations should support these professionals with strong professional identity and growth motivation that are committed to their work. There should be more acknowledgement and support e.g. with salary rise and by enabling every social worker with supervision service, before the number of those leaving from the field due to the burnout increases.

In summary, it can be said that the research has shed light upon professional identity and professional growth of social workers and the development of social work profession in Estonia. As social work as profession has been little researched in Estonia, it is natural that this research brought out many topics that would need further research. New knowledge is needed in vocational education, it would also be used to help and support social workers in their work environment.

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