By Jim Greer
We are all familiar with the in-flight safety instruction that in the event of cabin depressurisation we should secure our own oxygen mask before that of another person, even if they are a child.
The advice may sound heartless and it certainly goes against our immediate instincts. However, reflection should tell us that we can only help our child if we can be sure of remaining conscious. Looking after the vulnerable requires us to prioritise our own wellbeing too.
Social workers have to listen to and empathise with service users every day, regardless of what is going on in their own lives. Sometimes they have to listen to service users talking about very distressing experiences or learn of the suicide of a service user.
This is sometimes referred to as vicarious trauma and in her 2011 book Social Work Under Pressure, Kate Van Heughten states that at worst it can resemble post-traumatic stress disorder.
An obvious source of support for the emotional demands of social work is via good reflective supervision. It is important that in situations where a social worker is managed by a member of another profession that there is another source of supervision where the emotional aspects of the job can be discussed.
However, good supervision alone cannot in itself safeguard the psychological wellbeing of social workers. It is important that social workers can understand and recognise the symptoms of psychological distress in themselves. Seeking support for a psychological problem is a sign of professionalism and strength, not a sign of weakness.
Prevention is, of course, better than cure and social workers should learn strategies for promoting their own wellbeing. Maintaing physical fitness is an essential to good mental health. You may argue that you don’t have time in your busy schedule for exercise but do you have time for being unwell?
Physical exercise, which could just be a brisk walk at lunchtime, coupled with good quality sleep each night will refresh you and enable you to be more productive while you are at work.
Good social work requires alertness and attention to detail. You would not consider it good practice if the person piloting your plane when you go on holiday was flying without adequate sleep. Social work is an equally responsible job and, just like flying, lives are often at risk. It requires clear thinking and good decision making.
Another worthwhile habit to cultivate is to learn to find a little time and space each day to experience mental peace and calm. Many people find meditation hard and are easily discouraged.
A less formal way of experiencing a break in your mental clutter is to simply go somewhere quiet and safe and just try to rest your mind for 15 minutes. Try to simply experience what stimuli are in your environment at the moment. Try to notice all the sights, sounds or smells that you would not normally be able to notice.
Whenever a thought about the past or a concern for the future or a pre-occupation arises in your mind don’t try to fight the thought or engage with it – just let it drift across your mind like a barely noticed cloud.
The only time in our life we have control over is the moment we are in now. Cultivating mental stillness will help you become more alert, conscious and attentive while diminishing the tendency to dwell on thoughts and feelings that make us unhappy.
Hopefully, you have workmates you support you and occasionally inspire you but sometimes we can find ourselves surrounded by colleagues who are constantly negative. People often say that it is good to have a moan but this is incorrect – indulging in negativity saps your enjoyment of your work and, ultimately, your life as a whole.
The YouTube vlogger James Altucher advocates trying a ‘no-complaints diet’. This involves avoiding complaining completely for two weeks. Whenever you feel a complaint or an irritation coming on, replace it with feelings of gratitude about something you value in your life.
You don’t have to have any religious beliefs to feel grateful for good things in your life and an ability to experience feelings of gratitude is correlated with good mental health.
Maintaining our physical and emotional wellbeing is something we have to work at. It takes time to embed new behaviours and attitudes and we should not expect instant results. However, if we care about our work and want to be well enough to carry on doing it for a long time it is something worth investing in.
Jim Greer is principal lecturer in social work at Teesside University and author of Resilience and Personal Effectiveness for Social Workers, which will be published in August.