By Professor David Shemmings
Zoe – a social worker who’s recently completed her ASYE – is coming back from a visit. She rushes into the office in a fluster. Her colleague Tom notices she’s in a bit of a state and asks, ‘You forgotten something?’ ‘No’, says Zoe, ‘just my brains when I decided to become a f****** social worker!’
‘What’s happened?’ replies Tom. Zoe sounds irritated and sad at the same time: ‘That father…he’s a bully. I know he’s harming his little boy … he’s only three for goodness sake … and he’s emotionally tormenting his wife but she’s too scared to do anything and won’t let me help. I just don’t know how she copes quite honestly. Do you know …’
Tom interrupts to advise her: ‘You can’t let it get to you Zo; this happens all the time.’ He says he has to go out on a visit but that she should talk to her team leader.’
Zoe is apprehensive about visiting the father again. She finds him a bit creepy and aggressive towards her. She’s conscious that she’ll probably have lots of cases like this during her career and doesn’t want her team to think she can’t cope. But she finds herself thinking about him and running through scenarios in her head at different times during the day. She has difficulty sleeping; when she does, it’s fitfully and he’s always in her first thought if she wakes in the night … and she can’t stop thinking about the boy … and his mum …
These are some of the classic signs here of an individual experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): unwanted and intrusive thoughts, difficulty sleeping, oscillating between shutting down one’s feelings and becoming drowned in them.
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David will be talking about what can be learnt from case studies of trauma-informed organisations and how to use these concepts in your team or organisation at Community Care Live London.
Register now for the event which takes place on 26-27 September.
Being a social worker does not (usually) involve the same stresses as, say, a firefighter or other first responder. But social workers can experience vicarious or secondary trauma from working alongside people who are suffering and in emotional pain, but who can also come across as being difficult to work with by appearing hostile, rejecting, or threatening.
Experiencing this kind of trauma can lead to decision-making being impaired as a result of ‘hot cognitions’ (in other words, the ability to think clearly is impeded by powerful, unprocessed feelings) and can result in social workers quickly becoming burned out.
This is why growing numbers of social care organisations are recognising the need to become ‘trauma-informed’. I’m working with a number of local authorities in the field of family support and child protection that are reviewing their supervisory, management and leadership practices to incorporate an awareness of how trauma impacts practitioners.
‘Facing the feelings’
I start by inviting social workers and managers to think about the difference between ‘event-based’ and ‘relationship-based’ trauma. We then discuss how trauma can affect the way we make sense of our emotions, how we think and how we can become more resilient by facing the feelings rather than repressing, suppressing or even denying them – this is OK in the very short-term but doing so doesn’t work for very long. (It’s always worried me the number of practitioners and supervisors who think that emotional resilience means ‘not showing your feelings by keeping a lid on them’.)
We talk about how colleagues deal with unprocessed emotion in the workplace: do they talk it through, act it out, end up having to take some time off, become grumpy with friends and family?
Or do they have ways to regulate the powerful feelings they are experiencing, thereby re-centring their emotional clay to offer the families with whom they work the safe haven and secure base they need? Anyone who’s tried making a clay vessel on a potter’s wheel will understand what I mean here: you have no control over the clay unless and until you centre it on the wheel
What we find – and this is borne out in many studies in this field – is that it’s the culture of the organisation, rather than the actions of individuals, that determines how successfully practitioners will address these questions. And sometimes a ‘supervisor’ is not the best person to offer ‘supervision’, because they might not at the time possess ‘super’ … ‘vision’ (literally, better sight!) when it’s needed. Sometimes one’s colleagues are better placed to do that.
But whoever offers it, it doesn’t necessarily take a long time. A couple of minutes, to say how you (really) feel and then be listened to quietly, intently and with interest and kindness by a co-worker who, at that point doesn’t offer advice – that may be needed later – is often all at that’s needed to set you back on track. Rest assured, we’re not talking about a 30-45 minute counselling session here!
You will no doubt already recognise something in this idea: this is exactly what good relationship-based social work involves!
Our understanding and conceptualisation of ’empathy’ is going through the mincer at the moment as a result of a recent book by Yale psychologist, Paul Bloom, called Against Empathy. He cites quite a few research studies claiming that ‘feeling someone else’s pain’ can sometimes make us ‘unwell’, not just physically but emotionally too. This is why Peter Fonagy’s notion of ‘epistemic trust’ – knowing that we have been demonstrably and verifiably understood (‘episteme’ is Greek for ‘knowledge’) – is starting to find resonance in the field of ‘relationship-based practice’.
The role of social care leaders is to help create the conditions for the organisation to become more ‘trauma-informed’, to cultivate a culture in which it’s OK to be sad about the people with whom you are working; and it’s OK to be angry, or have any other feeling … but it’s unwise to leave these emotions unprocessed and unregulated because then they can fester and erupt unannounced and unexpectedly.
When organisations get it right, a virtuous cycle starts to turn. And, anecdotally at this point, I keep hearing powerful messages from social workers who tell me that, when the circle rotates, the various innovations they are trying out – such as Signs of Safety, systemic approaches, motivational interviewing, attachment-informed approaches, strengths-based approaches, solution-focussed work and so on – are applied with more fidelity to their theoretical bases, and with more confidence too.
David Shemmings OBE PhD is professor of Child Protection Research, University of Kent and Royal Holloway, University of London
David is one of a number of expert trainers, practitioners and leaders speaking at Community Care Live London on 26-27 September. Register now for your free place.