Although she arrived at the University of Melbourne with a plan to study psychology, Olga Gountras discovered her true passion lay with social work.
Social work alum Olga Gountras has more than 35 years of clinical and managerial experience. So, when law firm Slater and Gordon wanted to set up an in-house social work service, Olga stepped up to take the lead.
Why did you choose the University of Melbourne?
I initially thought I wanted to be a psychologist. The University of Melbourne offered this as part of an arts degree, which appealed to me.
I chose to do my Bachelor of Social Work at the University because I liked the way the course was structured. It had two seventy-day placements, offering valuable on-the-job training.
I did my Master of Social Work there as well because it offered the option of a coursework-based degree, which fit with working full time. Of course, by then I was familiar with some of the academic staff as well as the campus.
What are your strongest memories of your time at the University?
I loved walking around the beautiful campus and admiring the architecture. The Law Building was my favourite. Little did I know I would be working in the legal sphere decades later.
I recall spending many hours at the Baillieu Library, looking in the card catalogue drawers to locate books and reading information using the microfiche reader. It feels archaic in this digital age!
Of course, the Union band nights were fabulous, as was going to the cinema and seeing productions at the theatre. I was lucky (and old enough) to see comedy performances from people like Magda Szubanksi and Rob Sitch, who were also students back then.
What drew you to your field?
I had a strong sense of wanting to help people to make a difference in their lives. I realised psychology was not the profession for me, but social work became far more appealing. I liked learning how to assist people by addressing both emotional and practical issues and seeing a person within the context of their environment and the systems they interact with.
My two placements, one at Springvale Community Aide and Advice Bureau and the other at Broadmeadows Community Health, had a big impact on me in regard to the clients I worked with and my amazing supervisors who taught me so much. They complemented the coursework education extremely well.
It was exciting connecting theory to practice. Listening to lecturers like Dorothy Scott, Cath James, Delys Sargeant and Elizabeth Ozanne share their practice wisdom was certainly inspiring. My Master of Social Work was very motivating as I had been working for seven years by then and it was very meaningful to be able to write about issues relevant to my practice.
What are some career highlights so far?
After 21 years of hospital social work, I was offered the opportunity to establish a social work service in a law firm. This had never been done before in Australia, so it was exciting and daunting at the same time.
I started solo in 2009 and established a small team within a couple of years. Providing free social work assistance to more than 4,000 Slater and Gordon personal injury clients is a huge achievement for the team.
I have a strong sense of social justice so working alongside lawyers to achieve the best possible outcomes for clients is a passion of mine. Although receiving a lump sum payment will not fix a person’s permanent injury or solve all their problems, it can alleviate financial distress and provide access to funding for ongoing health care, personal and homecare needs.
I love using my social work knowledge and expertise to enhance client care through direct practice, supervising my team and training legal team members to be more attuned to the needs of vulnerable clients. I do not take for granted that our Social Work Service is recognised and respected across all levels of the organisation for the work we do and the perspective we provide.
Giving back to the profession by facilitating the provision of practical legal knowledge to social workers to assist their clients and their practice is very important to me. We have been providing free legal education to social workers since 2010 and COVID-19 gave us the impetus to move our national program to also offer webinars. I am also very proud of our e-publication ‘Social Work and the Law’ which we send to social workers on our national mailing list.
Tell us more about your role and how your studies helped you prepare for it.
My team provides practical and emotional support to people who have experienced a serious injury or illness as they go through their legal claim to obtain compensation. We are a phone-based service, so we can assist clients wherever they are located across Australia.
I modelled the service delivery based on what I had learnt at university and from my work experience as a social worker in the health system. My university degrees gave me the foundation for good social work practice, however, as I have been working for more than 35 years a lot of credit also goes to clinical experience.
I stepped out of social work for four years to take on a role as Allied Health Unit Manager in a rehabilitation hospital, managing 45 staff. When I returned to social work in 2005, I returned to the University to undertake a Master of Social Work subject.
It was offered as a two-week intensive subject, and I did it non-assessed as I already had a Master of Social Work. It was a fantastic reintroduction to the profession as the course consisted of invited social workers from different fields presenting on current issues. The subject was led by Professor Lynette Joubert who is still on staff at the university.
What advice would you give to current social work students?
Social work offers a broad spectrum of fields and organisations to work in. Placements offer the opportunity to try out an area of work you are interested in a ‘safe space’, so think carefully about where you go.
Developing a strong professional identity and understanding the boundaries of your role are critical. This is because, traditionally, social workers have struggled at times to explain their role and articulate their value in organisations to management, which leaves them vulnerable to role shedding and job loss.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
You must take care of yourself before you can care for anyone else.
Work-life balance, healthy self-care strategies, understanding the boundaries of your role and remembering we don’t have magic wands – no matter how much we want to ‘fix’ a client’s situation – are critical in order to remain effective and passionate about the work we do as social workers.