The author’s research found that social care workers have
described themselves as being “wounded” following
interactions with service users. This resonates with the recent
tendency to employ metaphors of violence when writing about
relationships between users and providers of social care services
generally. The research considers implications for supervision and
suggests the characteristics of the ideal supervisor. It also
stresses the importance of appropriate staff
care in stressful and testing times.
An article in Community Care about staff safety ended with the
words: “With the already existing problems in the recruitment
and retention of social workers, it is imperative that everything
is done to ensure that those who choose a career in social care,
mental health or probation are not also sentenced to a life of
fear.”1 The article’s headline, “When the knives
are out”, illustrated the metaphors of violence that are
often used to depict the relationships between providers of social
care and service users.
Research into more than 70 social workers’ and
counsellors’ experiences of fear in their work found a
remarkable amount of “battlefield” and
“siege” terminology.2 For instance, after several
assaults at work, a residential social worker said he and his
colleagues were used as “cannon fodder”. Social workers
related traumatic experiences of being assaulted and of feeling
emotionally wounded as a result, while another participant said:
“My identity had changed immediately. It’s as if the
person who attacked you is the victim. It’s a wound that you
carry… a feeling of being damaged goods, less pure, after the
assault. Your professional invulnerability has been breached.
It becomes a shadow over your name… But now, it’s like
being in a society, the Dead Social Workers’ Society, The
Fraternity of Fear. We have secret meetings where you come and bawl
your eyes out.”
Another worker experienced death threats and found the stability
and security he had previously taken for granted as part of his
out-of-work family life was suddenly taken from him and could no
longer be depended upon. He, too, experienced a feeling of being
“wounded” and did not want to be thought of as a
liability who held back the working “operation”.
“You want it to be recognised but don’t want to be
thought of as the wounded soldier.”
My research also looked at the responses workers wanted from
supervisors. One of the questions in the interview was: what
responses would you like from an ideal supervisor to whom you took
an experience of fear? Participants said an ideal supervisor
1. Be there for them, have time to listen to them without
2. Understand them, acknowledge and recognise what they have been
3. Reflect upon and (gently) explore what had happened without
4. Affirm and support them.
5. Take action if and when needed.
6. Empathise and allow for the expression of strong feelings.
7. Look at possible alternatives.
It seems that workers’ most important needs in the immediate
aftermath of trauma are for space and time in which they can be
listened to, understood, and acknowledged. Taking action is low
down on the list of priorities. The meeting of these needs seems to
reassure the worker and help them recover and reassert their belief
in their own judgement or their faith in human nature.
Workers did want to analyse what had happened and to reflect on
whether a different outcome might have resulted had they acted
differently, but they resented being rushed into problem-solving
analysis too quickly. In order to “get back to
themselves” they needed a humane recognition of what they had
been through and how it had affected them. But they did not want
the recognition to be provided hurriedly or while supervisors were
distracted with other priorities.
Even though workers felt shaken by the experiences, they did not
always feel that they wanted to share how they felt with their
supervisor, however understanding or sympathetic. Staff feared
being seen to be weak and vulnerable by their supervisor as this
might be used against them later, particularly if the supervisor
also carried out appraisals and evaluations. This raises questions
for organisations about where support for traumatised workers comes
from – whether support was acceptable from within or whether
employers should consider contracting outside providers. Although
contracting outside agencies might have advantages, this could be
seen as “getting rid” of a difficult responsibility. It
could also deny the organisation valuable opportunities to learn
about workers’ experiences and needs.
It is important that the “under siege” metaphor is not
exaggerated. Most service users are not violent, and must not be
unthinkingly bracketed with the small minority that are. However,
the issue of violence and threats of violence against staff is a
vital one and needs sensitive and thoughtful consideration.
Currently, when star ratings, performance indicators and balancing
budgets consume so much time, energy and creativity, it is
essential that staff needs are not squeezed out of an
organisation’s focus. Making time to listen to and
acknowledge the impact of fearful experiences in a humane way is a
place to start.
As another participant said: “If you look in our department
you will find a thick file on child protection procedures. What
about staff protection procedures? That’s what I want to
1 L Revans, “When the knives are out”, Community
27 November 2003
2 M Smith, L McMahon and
J Nursten, “Social workers’ experiences of fear”,
British Journal of Social Work, volume 33, issue 5, 2003. And M
Smith, “The fears of the counsellors: a qualitative
study”, British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, volume
31, issue 2, 2003
Martin Smith is practitioner-manager for the
Buckinghamshire social services emergency duty team. He is
particularly interested in the impacts of fear and stress on staff.
His first book, The Heart of the Night: Out of Hours Crisis
Intervention in Health and Social Care, is about to be