Diary: ‘Exhaustion and stress hide the good parts of social work’

When I'm exhausted from trying to keep up with a workload that exceeds my capacity I fail to notice the stuff about social work that I value and that keeps me inspired, writes an anonymous social worker


The late writer and poet John O’Donohue said that if you look at stress philosophically you could say that being stressed means you have lost a right relationship with time.

This feels an interesting observation for social workers. Our workload almost consistently exceeds our capacity, so we speed up. We work faster. We are constantly rushing.

It’s a worrying and potentially dangerous situation as we are involved with people’s lives and constantly have to make very complex decisions. 

I also know that if I am travelling at the wrong pace I fail to notice the stuff about social work that I value and that keeps me inspired: the moments of humour, the buzz of working with young people, the sense of shared humanity. 

I am often too hurried to notice the really lovely skies above the busy motorway on my way home from work or to appreciate the dedication of colleagues, like the staff member who is so committed to the team that she is pestering us for work she can do from home despite being in the middle of a course of chemotherapy.


This morning a mother phoned one of my staff at 8am to thank her for her input at a review meeting the night before.

“No-one’s ever said anything positive about my son before,” she said.

This is a family that the agencies have written off as “difficult to engage”. I was doubtful myself of whether it would be possible to build a positive relationship.

The phone call demonstrates the power of respectful, persistent and sensitive social work intervention. I hope my member of staff has the time to realise how significant this feedback is, and what a credit it is to her practice.


I’m part-time. It means that every day feels like a race to get things finished and tied up neatly so that the days I am absent don’t cause undue problems.
Childcare is a harsh deadline.

Today we’ve had a number of crises and the management meeting planned for 3.30pm has been pushed back and back. I know I‘ve got really important issues to discuss, but the childcare is calling.

I phone my husband: “Can you get back to pick the children up today?” 

He agrees but I feel a familiar guilt as I know the heavy responsibilities of his job. He’s in social work too, in the voluntary sector. This, of course, trumps my own statutory work in the scale of worthy jobs! 

Is it wrong to sometimes wish he was a banker and know that I always had the moral high ground when it comes to negotiating who should leave early?
The meeting is long and it’s getting late.

The clock is ticking towards my children’s bedtime. Every time a new issue is raised the tension inside grows. At what point should I leave? 

We talk about how overstretched we are as a management team. I know how busy people are and worry that my colleagues pay a heavy price for my part-time hours.
“I feel like a liability”, I say. My colleagues joke and smile kindly, but no one contradicts me.

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