Fighting talk

    Abstract

    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.

    Fighting talk

    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
    would:

    1. Be there for them, have time to listen to them without
    criticism.

    2. Understand them, acknowledge and recognise what they have been
    through.

    3. Reflect upon and (gently) explore what had happened without
    adverse judgement.

    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
    know.” CC

    References

    1 L Revans, “When the knives are out”, Community
    Care,
    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
    published.

     

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