Public trust in the social work profession

Social workers are a vital and important workforce. They apply their expertise and skills across a range of organisations and services. They work with vulnerable individuals, whānau and communities to improve wellbeing.

People receiving support from a registered social worker can be reassured that they are competent, fit to practise, and accountable for the way they practise. This helps to build trust in the social work profession.

Why is trust important?

  • If people do not trust social workers, they may avoid the support services they could benefit from. Individuals and whānau need to trust the profession as a whole in order to feel comfortable and willing to access services.
  • Trust is a critical factor in building relationships. It helps with providing safe, effective and ongoing support.

As outlined in SWRB’s Statement of Intent for 2022-2026, one of our high-level outcomes is to promote public trust and confidence in the New Zealand social work profession. To be able to achieve this, we need first to understand what level of trust and confidence members of the public currently have in the profession.

Research commissioned

Last year, the SWRB commissioned Research New Zealand to explore the level of trust the New Zealand public has in the social work profession.

The research included a survey of more than 1,000 New Zealanders. The 2023 survey results indicated:

  • The level of trust in the social work profession was not high. However, the trust rating was in line with the level of trust in a number of other ‘caring’ professions.
  • There were many respondents who admitted they know little or nothing about social workers.
  • Although there was a low understanding about what social workers do, most respondents agreed that social work is hard and challenging. They also agreed that social workers have an important role to play in making difficult situations better.
  • Many people are unsure about what is involved in becoming a social worker and whether social workers are regulated.
  • Those people who knew more about social workers were more likely to have trust and confidence in them.

We are using the baseline findings from this research to help shape our work as a regulator and in our workforce planning role. We expect to commission similar research in the future to find out if there are changes in trust and confidence levels over time.

Further detail

Who has/does not have trust in social workers?

  • The survey showed 44% respondents have ‘full’ or ‘some’ trust in social workers.
  • The level of full trust in social workers (13%) is similar to how survey respondents feel about other professions such as youth workers, therapists, counsellors and psychologists (11-17%), but lower than those who say they have full trust in teachers (23%) or health workers such as doctors and nurses (41%).
  • There are few statistically significant demographic differences between respondents who have ‘full’ trust in social workers and those who have ‘no’ trust.
  • Respondents with personal experience of social workers were also more likely to say they have ‘full’ trust in them (17% compared with 11% of those with no personal experience).
  • There were no significant differences in trust by gender, ethnicity, or region.

What do people know about registration and accountability?

  • 45% of respondents know ‘nothing at all’ or ‘a little’ about what social workers do
  • 51% don’t believe or don’t know that social workers are required to be registered
  • 59% believe social workers are held accountable for the work they do.

Although around half of respondents (51%) were not aware that social workers must be registered, 59% of respondents did believe that social workers are held accountable. This suggests a lack of understanding about the role of registration in a regulated profession. However, when prompted, most people think that social workers are regulated by the government and/or an organisation that they are registered to.

Respondents who had given a high trust rating for social workers were more likely to have a better understanding of what’s involved in becoming and being a social worker. For example, 86% stated that social workers have a ‘Code of Conduct’ compared with 69% of those with little or no trust. Similarly, 86% of respondents with high trust in social workers agreed that social workers are held accountable for their work. This compared with 48% with little or no trust. 

Developing our approach

As a regulator, we contribute to building public trust in the social work profession. Until recently, our communications have been focused mainly on social workers and their employers. We are now developing our approach to our communications for the general public. This research identifies areas where we can educate and inform to ensure a wider understanding of the social work profession. This aligns with our workforce planning role and work to highlight the contribution registered social workers make to the wellbeing of New Zealanders.