By Shirley Dunkin-Read, social worker at East Sussex County Council
Two years ago my local authority became one of the first councils in the country to offer mindfulness training to its social workers. It has made a real difference to me. Before I completed the training, I found it hard to focus on one thing at a time at work. I often worried about trying to do everything at once and then felt like I wasn’t able to do anything well.
Being a social worker can be stressful. There’s a lot going on in a short amount of time, which can be quite intense. I work in the fostering team. Our caseloads are busy and assessments need to be done quickly, especially if I’m working to a schedule for a court case.
The stresses of the job
Everything can feel manageable until something goes wrong, such as a placement not working well. Children’s behaviour can sometimes be stressful for foster carers and they might call once a day for an hour or so. So you end up with everyone’s stresses in your head, which makes it hard to switch off and relax after work.
I first found out about the mindfulness training after an email was sent round at work. I then started the nine week course last January, which was once a week for two-and-a-half-hours.
The course is quite difficult for social workers because our jobs are so busy, but we’re allowed to manage our own diaries so I booked in the course around my schedule. And the monthly follow ups after the training have been really useful so as not to forget everything we learnt.
‘The training taught me how to relax’
The training taught me how to relax. It is so important as you can do far more good if you’re relaxed. I learnt lots of techniques to help me focus on one thing at a time, which has really helped with my work. And the training was tailored to our busy workloads, so even if I only have five minutes in between appointments, there are different things I can do. Sometimes I try a breathing exercise in my car or stare out the window and focus on something lovely, which is really uplifting.
Before I did the mindfulness training, I found it particularly difficult to switch off on a Friday evening if things had gone wrong at work. You can give a family an out-of-hours contact number over the weekend, but then I felt guilty as I wasn’t there to help. But the training taught me how to clear my mind after work, so I don’t take it home with me as I have my own family and they need me too.
And it’s really important to have a good work-life balance so I don’t burn out. In social work there’s so much to learn, but you’re not really taught how to cope with the job. What’s so great about mindfulness is that it helps give you permission to switch off. My local authority has seen reduced stress levels among social workers since it introduced the mindfulness training a couple of years ago. I’ve certainly found it really helpful and have recommended the training to lots of people.