On the inhumanity and alienation of professional detachment

A Plan C member writes about their experiences as a domestic violence worker, and the alienation a culture of “professionalism” and State provision engenders.

I am a professional. That’s how I am referred to in my work, that’s how I refer to myself in the course of doing my job and that’s how the people I work with refer to me. Or rather my ‘service users’, as we insist on calling them. I am the service, they are the service users – the relationship is passive, and they are supposedly receiving something from me.

I’m a domestic violence worker – I help people who have been or are being abused by their partners and families. Or else, I try to help. Most of the time I am merely shown the harshest end of our so-called ‘welfare’ state. Temporary accommodation which lasts years, benefits that are never paid, police and social services who never follow up, justice that is never served. My relationship to my ‘service users’ is one that often feels alienated. I started to think about this alienation, how it serves the state, how it serves charity.

I think about this often as people book appointments to come and see me for an hour and I tell them there’s almost nothing I can do about their current situation. Yes, that’s the council policy. No, they aren’t obligated to do anything else. Sorry, I know it’s shit. Sometimes the most satisfying illicit thing is telling them that last part. That I, too, know it’s shit.

I always feel a bit ‘naughty’ saying things like that because it is ‘not very professional’. This is another thing that haunts me in my work – professionalism. To be professional means to specialise in something, to have the expertise, but it also means something else. It means maintaining appropriate boundaries, letting people know that you are the one with the knowledge, you are the one authorised to write letters on their behalf and perhaps be taken seriously. It means, apparently, you know more than they do about their own situation. It also means that you have to watch someone crying their eyes out and never, ever even consider touching their hand by way of comfort. Just hand them the tissues. Wait till they stop.

The relationship between alienation and professionalism ensures a tiered system in all support work administered by the state and third sector agencies – the two often becoming indistinguishable as everything that is most essential to survival is gradually outsourced and our rights to any state provision at all are degraded. In order to navigate the system, support workers become a mechanism by which one can gain legitimacy. I can write a letter that can be used as ‘proof’ that domestic violence has taken place, I can provide people with legitimacy. In my professional opinion, this person has suffered an adequate amount. That support comes from the top down. I am paid, employed by a charity, to administer it. My word becomes valid in some way because of that. I have a tiny key to access provision, unlock a tiny trap door where, if you pull real hard, you can get out one or two measly items.

Domestic violence work and most other support work including housing, drugs work and mental health support are mostly done by charities or third-party agencies contracted by the council. A drugs worker called me the other day and told me my service user didn’t want to attend their drugs support group, two bus rides away from their house, because they didn’t have enough money to get there. ‘It’s all we can offer, I’m afraid’ she said, ‘we only do groups now in four different areas, no one-to-one work apart from seeing their caseworker every five weeks’. She assured me that this was all to do with funding and that if my service user was serious about getting help they’d have to suck it up. I could hear the frustration in her voice – my service user had hung up on her during their conversation. I probably would’ve too. But, as a ‘professional’, I told her I’d talk to them about it in our next appointment.

The thing is, professionals talk about this ‘lack of funding’ all the time. We sigh to each other conspiratorially – yes, we could do more but there just isn’t the funding. It’s true. I can’t magically house, feed and clothe my service users. But I often wonder where on earth these people are during rallies against the cuts. They see it every day, but they feel powerless to change anything. That’s just how it is, they repeat the mantra to the service users enough to even convince themselves of its truth. Nothing I can do. Sorry. That’s just the way it is.

In many ways this is yet another form of alienation from their work. They have come to accept the system that they reside within, they merely labour within it passively without a thought for the product itself. Most support workers are on low wages, most of them are women and, in my city, many of them are women of colour. Their labour is never valued. It is always on a shoe-string budget. It wouldn’t even occur to them to demand more – they are doing this out of compassion and yet gradually losing that very compassion. They have to – it is the only way to survive any of it.

Imagine support workers going on strike. I often try to. I think about how my job is funded by a third-party grant scheme for a set amount and how, even if they wanted to, my managers couldn’t actually pay me more. The curse of charity. We are at the whim of our benefactors. There is an echo of this in my work, too, as I apply to charities for hardship funding for the people who cannot access enough through the system. Occasionally those grants will get awarded but always with conditions – we can’t give the money to the person in question directly. We have to buy them vouchers. This is because the money must be spent on what was specified by the funders. The autonomy of the person in need is secondary to this. Our grants givers’ charitable whim must always be respected. How great, indeed, that they gave us anything at all! This creates a further layer of alienation between myself and the person I am supporting. I have to go through a layer of bureaucracy and explain why I can’t just give them the cash when I bloody well wish I could do just that. Instead, I remain calm and passive at their pleas ‘It’s just our policy’.

When I first got my job, I was surprised they’d give someone like me, with no ‘professional’ experience, a position like this in the first place. My experience was anecdotal – I’d been through a domestically violent relationship myself a few years back, knew a bit about the legal system from reporting a sexual assault and (in a separate incident) being arrested and convicted myself, had been on benefits and helped my mates sort theirs out. I suspect this is the case for a lot of support workers. There’s a real sense that you’re some kind of heroic martyr when you tell people about the job. ‘Must be so rewarding’ they say, ‘really giving something back’. This makes it especially hard to complain – how could I? I’m lucky to be here. Certainly, luckier than my service users.

In the charity sector, in particular, this paternalistic attitude creates a further layer of coercion in the paid work of support workers. We must be grateful that we are being paid at all. Perhaps this work, good as it is, should simply come from the kindness of our own hearts? All this dirty talk of being paid for our labour! I can’t possibly admit to anyone that I too am fucking bored in my job and wish I didn’t need to work at all. What a terrible thing to say when these people are relying on you!

In many ways, it is in the interest of the capitalist state to maintain the relations I have described. As long as I am not able to relate to my ‘service users’ on a personal level, I can maintain a layer of detachment from them, which makes it easier to ignore their suffering. Professionalism is detachment, the forced alienation between service provider and service user. It encourages passivity, too, from the ‘service user’ themselves for they are merely being helped and have no agency in this. They aren’t allowed to apply for these grants themselves, to assert that they have suffered domestic violence themselves, their word is often not enough on its own. Rather than working together as people, as comrades, to face the system, we are alienated and interact only on ‘professional’ terms. It is the very aim of charity to take the responsibility of providing for its people away from the state. I am a part of that. But, in turn, of course I am coerced into performing waged labour myself as much as anyone else is. Person to person work, I have found, is just as alienated within capitalist relations as anything else is. How could I have expected otherwise?


This article first appeared at Plan C