by Sophie Ayers
I survived nine years in child protection social work. It sounds like it should be a slogan on the front of a t-shirt or mug. I think the average time a worker lasts in this field is eight years, so at least I can say I did my time.
When I think back over the past nine years, it seems like an absolute whirlwind. Where did the fresh-faced, naive, ponytail swishing social worker disappear to?
I often think about the conversations I would like to have with my younger self as a student or newly qualified social worker. The most important conversation would be telling the younger me facing a computer screen, typing endless case notes and reports late into the night, “turn your computer off and rest!”
Three months ago, I took a self-imposed break from work. My friends and colleagues are aware at just how bad I am at taking annual leave. It always felt pointless to take significant chunks away from the office as the deluge of work when you returned nullified any benefit from your holiday. My recent break made me realise how wrong I was about this.
If you don’t take time to nurture yourself and invest in significant rest periods, you never catch up from the relentless ‘hamster wheel’ of social work.
While resting I have opened up a dialogue with myself (yes, really) about investing in my own life and ensuring that my health and happiness is a priority. It is amazing how quickly health habits can be a problem in this area of work.
Throughout my career I have struggled with smoking. I managed a two-year period of absolutely no cigarettes but started again. I oscillate from being super fit and going to the gym every day to becoming a sloth whose only exercise is to move my arm up and down to put another cake in my mouth.
I am not blaming the work on the poor choices I make about my own lifestyle, but what I have found is that if I have the time and space to be organised in my own life, I certainly make better choices about exercise and diet.
The smoking I am working on – and the rather unattractive wheezing noise I make in my daily spinning class is certainly a motivator to kick the habit finally.
I don’t think I realised how tired I was from the long hours I worked and distressing situations I witnessed.
I do not want to appear to be presenting social work as a ‘martyr-type’ profession or request any sympathy for this, I am just stating a simple fact: social work is a profession that requires long and unpredictable working hours.
This reality is often unavoidable no matter how many boundaries you have with yourself and your employer.
I have wrestled with the idea of leaving local authority social work for some time. However, I have at times struggled to choose between peanut butter or marmite on my toast let alone how I should move my career forward. I was always clear that I never wanted to become a manager as my passion lay with direct contact with service users and assessments.
I think that as a manager, you are stuck between a rock and a hard place managing the unrealistic expectations of senior managers; working with restrictive staffing levels; dwindling budgets and managing over-stretched workers.
I am sure there are many managers who would argue against this description but this is my perception and why I strongly avoided this path.
Independent social work
Last year I attended a networking event and met a range of independent social workers. It was the first time my eyes opened to doing social work outside of a local authority.
Each person advocated strongly for their autonomy and the fact that they had a much better work-life balance. This prompted me to think about changing my situation.
I have spoken passionately about the retention crisis in social work and my ideas about how some of the issues could be resolved. I was concerned that if I decided to leave local authority social work, would I also be contributing to this problem?
Lonely and isolated?
I was also concerned that not being part of a team may be really challenging. I think almost all social workers would say that one of the most positive aspects of our work is the fantastic relationships and support that you develop with your team members.
I was concerned that independent social work would represent a fairly lonely and isolated existence. I have found it strange not to be around the constant banter of social workers, although I have also found this to be quite refreshing. I always found the ‘agile working’, open-plan offices impossibly noisy and frenetic.
I prefer the peace and quiet of my own home, but I do make sure I regularly keep in contact with social work friends to ensure that I receive the necessary level of sarcasm and self-deprecation to ensure my chakras remains intact.
The difference is that I now get to choose who I chat to and receive support from.
This is the pivotal point about the decision of becoming an independent social worker: autonomy. I now have choice about how much work I take on, who I talk to and how I manage my time.
Independent social work is not without risks. The lack of certainty about consistent work and delays in payments are two of the most important factors to consider.
But I am willing to give it a try. I am not sure if my days as a local authority social worker have fully ended. However, I am excited about the future and the new challenges independent social work may bring.