Claudia Megele explores the impact of distress and fear in social work practice and explains how “fear audits” could help
Fear and distress have a significant impact on our decision-making as well as our perception of life and events. In particular, intimidation and practitioners’ anxieties and fears about personal safety, workloads, negative outcomes and getting it wrong are very serious issues in practice.
Our usual response to fear is to shift into self-preservation mode. Psychologically we become more alert and more concerned with our immediate surroundings, as we tend to focus on what has caused or evoked the fear. This narrowing of focus can distort our view and understanding of the situation. Fear that is not recognised and managed appropriately can lead to stress and poor judgement.
Failing to act on your instincts
Serious case reviews highlight cases where social workers have been in rooms with children who – it later emerges – were fatally injured, but did not walk across the room to engage with or examine them. In fact, even the most experienced workers have been unable to explain why they did not act. To understand such situations, we must appreciate the psychological impact of fear and stress on our decision making and behaviour whether that involves action or inaction.
Fear and stress audits can help to determine the level of individual and/or organisational fear and anxiety embedded within the organisation’s structure and culture. Social workers’ challenging mandate entails substantial emotional toil as well as concerns and fears of negative outcomes including fears of danger, fears of losing control or fears of disapproval or rejection.
But fear is not always negative and can be an early warning sign based on our gut feeling, so the ability to identify, correctly distinguish and appropriately manage fear is essential to good practice and important for both individual and organisational health. There is a close positive correlation between fear and distress. When speaking to social workers about distress, most talk of a time when they were afraid. Despite this it is not easy to acknowledge our facts. Much like children who may find it too frightening to speak of a bad dream, we seem to fear fear and treat our fears as the genie in the lamp. It seems that we’re afraid that by talking about and naming our fears, they may feed on themselves and grow bigger and become unmanageable.
Fear and anxiety are partly due to the uncertainty associated with our actions and decisions and inherent in everyday life, and although denial of fear may seem attractive at times, it is usually a short-sighted strategy that can have serious repercussions.
Social workers and their managers are often exposed to the sharp edge of society’s fears and anxieties and should, therefore, develop their ability and capacity for containment and for managing fear and stress. In fact, all serious case reviews involving child death have shown that at some stage social workers were fearful of negative outcomes or a party involved but their fears were not adequately recognised and appropriately addressed.
Fear audits help bring individual and organisational fears and anxieties to light and enable us to identity them accurately. Fear audits also serve as practice fire drills that enable practitioners to think about fears and anxieties in a safe and supportive environment (e.g. a team meeting or training exercise), rehearse strategies and approaches for safe exits, and deal with potentially dangerous situations and negative outcomes. Precious knowledge gained from such rehearsals can then help practitioners manage similar situations in their actual practice.
We must avoid the blame game and move from a culture of control to a culture of support and experiential learning. Fear audits enable practitioners and their organisations to critically examine this important aspect of their decision-making and everyday practice, and create an open and accepting environment that sustains and supports best practice culture.
The importance of fear audits is encapsulated in Freud’s account of a three-year-old boy afraid of the dark. The boy calls out to his aunt from a darkened room: “Auntie, speak to me! I’m afraid because it’s so dark.” His aunt answers him: “What good would that do? You can’t see me.” “That doesn’t matter,” replies the child, “if any one speaks, it gets light.”
About the author: Claudia Megele is a psychotherapist and service director of A Sense of Self. She is also a trainer and an associate lecturer in applied social work practice at the Open University.
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