Tips for social workers on handling frightening situations

Social workers may have to face frightening situations in the course of their work. Here's how to deal with it

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Photo: FLPA/REX/Shutterstock

Working with tough situations is par for the course when you’re a social worker, but sometimes these can go beyond challenging. In 2014, a survey of more than 400 social workers and managers by Community Care found 85% had been physically assaulted, verbally abused, or harrassed in the previous year and on a single day in 2016, 40% of over 2,000 social workers said they had been verbally abused that day.

In a recently-updated piece for Community Care Inform Children, author and trainer Ray Braithwaite provides guidance to frontline practitioners and managers on dealing with frightening situations. Inform subscribers can read the full guide; these are a few tips on approach situations that make you fearful.

Beforehand

Preparation is crucial. Even though many situations can’t be predicted, the way we respond to fear can be rehearsed. Try to create a situation where you feel more in control by using the following strategies:

  • Role play the event with a colleague and actually say or do what you think you would in the circumstances.
  • Talk it over in supervision and work out a strategy to help you feel more secure – feelings of vulnerability experienced by the worker must be taken into account when the risk assessment is done.
  • In repeat visits or on-going contact, identify the specifics of what is generating the fear within you and consider how these specifics may be managed.
  • Openly discuss the situation with your colleagues. It is often reassuring to know that others have similar feelings concerning situations they are experiencing.
  • Listen to other people’s experiences and identify what worked for them. Remember though, their solutions may not be appropriate for you.

During

Be aware of the processes impacting upon you and manage the physiological and emotional reactions you may be experiencing. Here are some suggested techniques:

  • Actively slowing down breathing can help you to relax.
  • Maintaining deeper breathing over a short period can help slow down the heart rate.
  • If you remain in the situation you will need to repeat the slower, deeper intake of breath periodically as you begin to tense up again.
  • A gentle gulp of air can help break the freezing process.
  • Slowly and deliberately, straightening your fingers before gently bending them towards the palm of your hand, and out again, can help to control trembling hands (be careful not to make a clenched fist).
  • Acknowledging to yourself that the reaction you are experiencing such as panic or fear can help regain some control over the emotion.
  • Redirecting your energy or focusing your attention on something different can help (but always remain aware of the person whose behaviour is creating this, for example, do not turn your back on them).
  • Be assertive. You could say, for example: “Your shouting is making me feel anxious and I can’t help you if I’m anxious. Stop shouting and tell me how I can help.”

 After

It’s also useful to be aware of common repercussions that can occur after a fearful experience which include:

  • The event replaying itself, often coming unbidden into our minds perhaps in sleep or when triggered by an associated or similar event – impacting upon our sleep and ability to relax.
  • Self-doubt about our level of skills and ability to manage situations.
  • Self-blame where we believe we could have managed the situation better – this can be re-enforced by an unsupportive manager/organisation or critical workplace culture.
  • Anxiety about having to go back to the situation or facing similar situations in the future.
  • Anxiety about leaving the house, or simply doing everyday things.
  • Stress reactions such as irritability, hostility and depression – impacting on our home life.
  • De-sensitisation and failure to recognise dangerous situations.
  • Loss of commitment to the work.

Supportive management and de-briefing are essential tools in enabling workers to continue to function effectively. Managers need not be trained counsellors, even a simple “How are you?” will demonstrate support and give the person the opportunity to talk about their fears.

After a traumatic event, allow yourself time to recover and do not deny nor play down the situation – acknowledge you have just been through a serious and unusual event, and identify that there may be some repercussions. Seek professional help if you need it.

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