The importance of supporting social workers’ own wellbeing should not be underestimated

After Mike Bush experienced a mental breakdown while working as a social worker he looked to improve support for professionals' wellbeing

Supervision meeting
Credit: Rex/Mint Images (posed by models)

By Mike Bush

Social work is a rewarding, but demanding profession. When I trained to enter it over 30 years ago there was nothing taught on our course about the importance of looking after ourselves.

Neglecting the needs of social workers – a workforce under the immense pressure to meet the needs of others day in day out – can come at a significant cost.

When I was working as a senior mental health social worker I had an acute mental breakdown and experienced suicidal depression. I know my experience is not unique among caring professionals. Ours is a sector where rates of sickness and absence, mental health problems and even suicide are elevated compared to the general population.

Community Care Live 14

Mike Bush will be running a session on workforce wellbeing at 1.15pm on day one of Community Care Live (20th May). Full details here.

My experience gave me a whole new insight into the impact of acute mental distress and led to me working to improve support for social workers’ wellbeing.

I developed a teaching session, which I’ll be running at this year’s Community Care Live conference, on promoting health and wellbeing to teach social workers and social work students about strategies to protect and promote their own mental health and build emotional resilience.

These sessions aim to help people develop a mindful appreciation of our own mental and emotional health needs and why we need to integrate this into practice as social care and health workers.

In my sessions I help people to develop a mindful appreciation of our own mental and emotional health needs and why we need to integrate this into practice as social care and health workers. The aims are to:

  • Examine what stress is, how it affects us and how we can understand and manage it.
  • Recognise the importance of looking after ourselves from our own perspective and that of service users, carers and employers.
  • Develop an understanding of a range of strategies to protect and promote our own wellbeing.
  • Understanding what we can do to help ourselves, including lifestyles, sleep, exercise, ‘eco therapy’, deep relaxation techniques, time management and prioritising our work
  • Knowing your rights as an employee, how to use your human resources department and the importance of union membership and professional associations.

This is all so important because it impacts the quality of care staff can offer. If care giving professionals are stressed, fatigued, burnt out or distracted, they will not be in a position to listen, focus and attend fully to the needs of those that they care for.

The care we provide can also be undermined by factors that impact our wellbeing such as bureaucracy, poor or limited supervision and poor management. This is not about the training or competence of care giving professionals but about their energy levels, mental state and focus.

Ultimately, care giving will be greatly impacted by the quality of the organisational cultures that support staff. However dedicated and competent an individual professional may be, they cannot sustain a high quality level of care without being supported to do so.

The overall quality of support currently on offer in public services is hard to measure accurately. But high absence and sickness rates tell their own story and there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that points to a need to address a deep problem in the support cultures in which social workers and other health and care professionals are expected to work.

One thing we can do is support one another. To help promote mutual help and support between professionals I have set up a looking after ourselves forum as part of The College of Social Work. I am hoping that this will develop into a highly interactive hub where social workers will exchange resources and take strength and support from each other.

Mike Bush is a mental health consultant and former social worker

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