There is nothing more deflating than seeing colleagues burst into tears because of workloads

A social worker with 30 years experience says taking a career break has been essential for her to continue doing the job she loves

A chance to 'recharge' can make a big difference. Photo: Takashi Hasoshima/ Flickr

By Imelda Hall, social worker

There is no doubt that being a social worker in this day and age can be pretty stressful. The demands of a hefty case load, high expectations and a lack of resources have seen many a good social worker buckle under the extreme pressure of what has now unfortunately become an integral part of the role.

I have worked in social care for just over thirty years, initially in residential care with adults and latterly with children and families. I spent 26 of those years in public service and five years working in the private sector.

Returning to local authority social work after just five years with the private sector was an unexpected culture shock. Working conditions seemed much worse, with just a handful of experienced social workers. The work flow was relentless and burnout high. There is nothing more deflating than seeing your colleagues burst into tears around you because their workloads are so large and witnessing their continued battles with organising and managing their cases, despite working long into the evenings.

Being strong for less experienced colleagues takes its toll

As an experienced social worker, you don’t have the luxury of being able to burst into tears in the office – you need to be strong for the overwhelming number of less experienced colleagues who deserve and need to be nurtured. But this in itself can take its toll on your emotional wellbeing, as the informal support for yourself inadvertently diminishes.

Although resources were widely available when I was working in the private sector, working for individuals who want to make a profit just never sat right with me. Whilst I do not undervalue the private sector (indeed, I greatly appreciated the available resources and the amount of time I was able to devote to children and their carers) my heart has always been in developing public services, no matter what state they are in.

Recharging the batteries

However, I fully appreciate that’s easier for me to say this now that I am in the fortunate position of being able to take an occasional career break from ‘the system’. My 11 months of “time out” has given me plenty of time to reflect and to pursue hobbies and interests that have helped me recharge my batteries so that the emotionally demanding nature of social work has less of an impact on me when I return.

It is such a pity that successive governments do not value social workers enough to provide even the most basic of resources that are so desperately needed. We have a steady stream of emerging recommendations from one report or another that bombards social work with initiatives intended to help us protect the vulnerable. Recommendations that my colleagues and I embrace. However, when will government put its money where its mouth is and provide the essential resources to support the social care workforce to do this in a more practical and meaningful way? We don’t need more recommendations, we need more investment in our services.

“I am proud to be a social worker”

Fully refreshed and ready for action, I intend to return to local authority social work very soon and look forward to meeting the challenges of developing and maintaining the high standards of our profession. These are abundantly in evidence, despite the picture of uncaring attitudes and low standards often painted by the media.

I am proud to be a social worker and feel lucky to be part of such a devoted and competent workforce. I have few expectations of our under-resourced system this time around and know that I will most certainly feel the pressure. However, being able to take a career break has been a huge release and means that I can continue the work I want to do in a stronger and more positive frame of mind.

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5 Responses to There is nothing more deflating than seeing colleagues burst into tears because of workloads

  1. Asye January 19, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

    Just a thought, but if the experience In the private sector was positive why are we so aginst it? I never thought I would consider it but I look around these tired local authorities and think maybe it does need a new approach.

  2. Linda January 19, 2015 at 2:07 pm #

    As a foster carer myself I cannot stress how important it is to have a social worker who is committed to the work I have had some fantastic support but I have seen the burn out and emotional toll it takes from everyone involved just echoing everything that is stated in this article

  3. Glenys Turner January 19, 2015 at 4:01 pm #

    This is happening in all departments not just child care. With staffing levels and resorces in the community fast becoming non existant, the stress of working in all sectors is becoming unmanagable.

  4. mike walker January 21, 2015 at 1:46 pm #

    I have been a Social Worker for 26 years.Most of my time was spent in the field of child protection.I have worked for Local Authorities and the NSPCC.
    In 2009 i decided to take a break from Social Work.I knew that if i didn’t then i would burn out,i was already feeling the symptoms of Burn Out.I wanted to leave under my own terms.I have to say it was probably the best decision i made.It helped me to reflect and re-generate.It also helped me to regain my focus.
    I too am proud to be a Social Worker.
    I am now working as an Undertaker for a private Funeral director.I am still working with people.It is unlikely that i will return to Social Work,However,i look back and feel reasonably satisfied.
    My advice would be to Social workers,we all need a break.It is important to see that there is life beyond.
    The very very best of luck to all of you working in the profession.

  5. FJ January 24, 2015 at 3:32 pm #

    Thank for your report. I’ve just started a degree course in health and social care and start feeling if I have made the right choice.
    Every Social worker talks about burning out and not enough resources.What resources is lacking and for what ? I feel social workers should specify what they actually need and what is lacking that is causing burn out. If you keep on over working yourself to meet targets , the government will assume you are capable to meet target. Just do what available resources allows you to do. If your boss complains about your work load not meeting target, tell him or her to sort it out him or herself. You need to look after your health and provide good quality service to service users. The community don’t want a burnt out social worker delivering poor service. Taking time off and employing cover staff will carry on draining the resources anyway.