‘I felt heavy paranoia about my cases and I couldn’t switch off’

A chaotic and heavy workload can feel smothering and all-consuming. A social worker shares her experience of burnout and returning to work

Photo: FLPA/Rex Features

By a social worker for children in long term care and care leavers 

I knew I was burning out when I drove home over the moors. The sun was setting on a beautiful day but at every bend, I considered driving off the edge.

I had been doing a standard visit but the mileage I was clocking up on top of a heavy caseload had taken its toll. I was grinding to a halt. It felt very frightening and bleak. I thought I would feel better after I got home or the next morning but this time I didn’t. I just felt a bleak empty sadness. I was burnt out.

‘Burnout snatched the highs out of my work’

I have experienced such extremes of highs and lows in social work and the highs often offset the lows quite completely. Settling a child and watching them blossom makes up for the grim disclosures and brutal life stories. I laugh and smile with children and share their journey, become a friend, a mentor, a constant in their lives.

Burnout snatched those highs away from me and I felt like an emotional vacuum. I was only able to focus on stark realities and the workload which felt smothering and all consuming. My patience and empathy drained away. Everything became a strain. On my working days I awoke every day with feelings of dread and almost phobic anxiety.

Paranoia and anxiety

It had all become too much and I couldn’t see a way out or any respite. In between my working days, I felt heavy paranoia about my cases and I couldn’t switch off. I felt watched and scrutinised in all I did. I realise looking back, I wasn’t being targeted at all; it was burnout-induced anxiety.

Eventually I took six weeks sick leave and was signed off for stress. That day on the moor I knew I was at my limit and could not go on. The first two weeks of leave made no difference and I felt fragile and shaky even being at home. I needed a lot of rest and support from my family.

At the beginning I had no clue if I would cope with a return to work. I did recover somewhat but felt emotionally weak and fragile. I still struggled to make decisions or just feel like I was coping.

Achievable changes

Eventually my line manager came to see me at home to see what they could put in place to help me. I did at least feel missed and valued by my team, although also incredibly guilty as I knew they had held the fort with no extra support. We looked at more options for working from home and covering a smaller area.

This meant a change of social worker for about five of my cases, one of which I had held for three years and this weighed heavily on my conscience. I feel lucky these changes were even achievable and I did return to work in the September.

I exchanged my spread out cases for children placed closer together but with a higher level of ongoing intervention. My workload has if anything increased but the driving has thankfully reduced and I don’t feel so wildly over capacity all of the time.

Reluctance to ask for help

In the end the intervention from my department was what helped the most and I remain in post. When I felt burnt out, I had convinced myself no one really cared about my welfare and that all I could do was just get on with it. Before I was signed off, I thought if I asked for help that I would just be ignored.

I’ve been in social work for a decade. It has been the most challenging, brilliant, humbling, enlightening experience I have ever had. I have never considered a career change in all that time but burnout was difficult to recover from and I couldn’t rule out it happening again.

For me, burnout was caused by a chaotic workload which made it impossible to take care of my own wellbeing, reflect on my casework, give my decision-making adequate consideration and feel like I was practising safely.

Community Care is conducting what we hope will be the largest study of social worker burnout in the UK, to provide us with hard evidence to take to ministers, MPs, council leaders and senior managers. The survey takes around 10 minutes to complete, you can read more information and take part here.

As part of our commitment to supporting social workers in their roles, we have also made Community Care Inform’s guide to developing emotional resilience free to download.

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