As social workers, we often find ourselves entrenched in other people’s lives and emotions, whether they want us to be there or not. This type of role is emotionally labour-intensive and it is important that this does not get ignored in practice, especially with newly qualified social workers (NQSWs), who are developing coping techniques and strategies that may last for their entire career. Otherwise they will be at much higher risk of burning out.
There are two facets to social work self-care. The first is the ability to switch off and enjoy some downtime and the second is to be kind to yourself when the going gets a bit rough. However, these are easy to identify, but not always easily achieved. No-one is perfect. There will always be cases that nag away at us, whether we are on-duty or off. The important thing is to care for ourselves as much as possible, on an everyday basis, so when the harder times arrive we are stronger and more resilient.
Separate your work and home lives as much as possible. If you work from home, try and find a space that is a little distanced from the hustle and bustle (i.e. not the kitchen). It is also good to find a task to help distract from your working day and ease yourself back into home life. I like a slightly longer drive home to give myself some headspace or a quick session at the gym to disperse any frustrations. The key is allowing yourself time for reflection. NQSWs can find this more difficult. Many come to their first social work jobs fresh from a life immersed in a social work degree. As a student, you live, breathe and think social work; but this is not sustainable for long periods in frontline practice.
As a previous user of mental health services, I am perhaps more aware of how to take care of myself than others. I have learned how to identify when I am close to my emotional or stress limits. However, there are still times, especially in this first year of practice, where I feel overwhelmed. One particular case comes to mind: I spent a lot of time with one female service user and was very emotionally labour-intensive. On days like those, I make sure that I am extra nice to myself. If I come home and want to eat a plate of chips or hide under the duvet at 9pm, then that’s what I do.
NQSWs are often experiencing a number of firsts while still developing self-care strategies, such as the first removal of a child, the first death of a service user or the first child/adult abuse case. The feelings involved in these are not easy to shrug off when the clock ticks over to 5:30pm. One NQSW I know plays basketball to get rid of any frustrations he may be experiencing; however, it has still taken him some time to come to terms with the more stark elements of his role as a child protection social worker.
More reflective supervision would allow NQSWs to spend more time exploring their feelings and thoughts regarding specific cases, as well as helping them to identify key reflective techniques. Action learning sets may also be a useful tool to support NQSWs in discovering self-care strategies with support from their peers – and realise that they are not alone in their experiences. Supervisors and social work peers should share their own methods of winding down. Crucially, reflective supervision should not just be provided to NQSWs, but to all social workers regardless of where they are on their career path.
I think universities and colleges should provide more support with this development at the training stage, rather than leaving NQSWs to battle with developing self-care strategies along with everything else involved in starting a new job. By no means does this have to be a lengthy module laden with theory and research; it could be, for example, one session before the start of each placement. Effective self-care techniques can take some time to develop. The earlier this process starts the better.
More by Nikki Burton