By a social worker for children in long term care and care leavers
I knew I was burning out when I drove home over the moors. The sun was setting on a beautiful day but at every bend, I considered driving off the edge.
I had been doing a standard visit but the mileage I was clocking up on top of a heavy caseload had taken its toll. I was grinding to a halt. It felt very frightening and bleak. I thought I would feel better after I got home or the next morning but this time I didn’t. I just felt a bleak empty sadness. I was burnt out.
‘Burnout snatched the highs out of my work’
I have experienced such extremes of highs and lows in social work and the highs often offset the lows quite completely. Settling a child and watching them blossom makes up for the grim disclosures and brutal life stories. I laugh and smile with children and share their journey, become a friend, a mentor, a constant in their lives.
Burnout snatched those highs away from me and I felt like an emotional vacuum. I was only able to focus on stark realities and the workload which felt smothering and all consuming. My patience and empathy drained away. Everything became a strain. On my working days I awoke every day with feelings of dread and almost phobic anxiety.
Paranoia and anxiety
It had all become too much and I couldn’t see a way out or any respite. In between my working days, I felt heavy paranoia about my cases and I couldn’t switch off. I felt watched and scrutinised in all I did. I realise looking back, I wasn’t being targeted at all; it was burnout-induced anxiety.
Eventually I took six weeks sick leave and was signed off for stress. That day on the moor I knew I was at my limit and could not go on. The first two weeks of leave made no difference and I felt fragile and shaky even being at home. I needed a lot of rest and support from my family.
At the beginning I had no clue if I would cope with a return to work. I did recover somewhat but felt emotionally weak and fragile. I still struggled to make decisions or just feel like I was coping.
Eventually my line manager came to see me at home to see what they could put in place to help me. I did at least feel missed and valued by my team, although also incredibly guilty as I knew they had held the fort with no extra support. We looked at more options for working from home and covering a smaller area.
This meant a change of social worker for about five of my cases, one of which I had held for three years and this weighed heavily on my conscience. I feel lucky these changes were even achievable and I did return to work in the September.
I exchanged my spread out cases for children placed closer together but with a higher level of ongoing intervention. My workload has if anything increased but the driving has thankfully reduced and I don’t feel so wildly over capacity all of the time.
Reluctance to ask for help
In the end the intervention from my department was what helped the most and I remain in post. When I felt burnt out, I had convinced myself no one really cared about my welfare and that all I could do was just get on with it. Before I was signed off, I thought if I asked for help that I would just be ignored.
I’ve been in social work for a decade. It has been the most challenging, brilliant, humbling, enlightening experience I have ever had. I have never considered a career change in all that time but burnout was difficult to recover from and I couldn’t rule out it happening again.
For me, burnout was caused by a chaotic workload which made it impossible to take care of my own wellbeing, reflect on my casework, give my decision-making adequate consideration and feel like I was practising safely.
As part of our commitment to supporting social workers in their roles, we have also made Community Care Inform’s guide to developing emotional resilience free to download.