‘If you don’t take care of yourself, how can you possibly help and support others?’

The values that drive people to become social workers can make it hard to put yourself first. But not saying 'no' can lead to burnout, says Graham Luetchford

Photo: vastatepark/Flickr

By Graham Luetchford, social worker and approved mental health professional, Wiltshire

Sometimes I think that we social workers are our own worst enemies.

People become social workers for a variety of reasons. Personal experience of distress (one’s own or another’s) and strong moral and political convictions figure largely. This gives us a powerful sense of mission and duty; it also gives us a strong feeling of failure if we cannot, for whatever reason, live up to our ideals.

We are often desperate to ‘do the right thing’ for clients and not having the tools to achieve our desired aims can lead to frustration, anger, demoralisation and often a sense of grievance against our employers for not providing us with the necessary resources to do our job well – all precursors to burnout.

Accepting increased workloads and longer hours as necessary just covers up the resource shortfall at the expense of the individual worker and their health and wellbeing.

Senior managers, local politicians and government need to admit when they cannot deliver services and not rely on the goodwill of staff who stretch themselves to the limit.

Sacrificing home life

The number of social workers and managers I have met over the years who work way beyond their paid hours and then take work home frightens me. They are not doing themselves or their clients any favours by sacrificing their own home life and wellbeing to make up for society’s reluctance to properly fund services.

Managers must make sure that staff do not overwork and that if it is sometimes necessary hours are taken back in lieu in good time. Employers do not give away free pay, why should we give away free work?

‘Too ill to be at work’

In my 15 years as a manager, I frequently had to send staff home I considered too ill to be at work, but who had come in out of a sense of duty and not wanting to let colleagues down. It is the organisation’s responsibility to ensure work is covered, not the sick worker’s and no one, client or colleague, wants to engage with someone who is obviously ill.

Similarly people return to work before they are fully well because of a misplaced sense of duty and a feeling of guilt due to their high expectations of themselves. I think of this as the ‘martyrdom’ school of social work and my watchword against this has long been ‘if you don’t take care of yourself, how can you possibly help and support others?’

Unachievable ideals

Our attempts to theorise and put social work on a firm scientific basis do not help, as they tend to create ideals that are unachievable.

In his excellent book Chris Beckett discusses the impossibility of social workers achieving everything society expects from them and describes policy development based on ‘wish listing, fantasy and symbolic reassurance’. His chapter on rhetoric and reality should be required reading for everyone in the profession, including academics and commissioners, who frequently create the ‘perfect policy’ regardless of their ability to implement it.

An example of this is the current fiasco with the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards – a High Court ruling has led to a totally unmanageable torrent of work for local authorities at a time of unprecedented budget cuts.

In my own field of mental health the new Code of Practice to the 1983 Act (amended 2007) is at least twice the length of the old, contains many additional recommendations for AMHPs to consider when assessing and is full of ‘sweeteners’ (as Beckett calls them) for service users, carers and families in terms of greater consultation and involvement.

This is at a time when a chronic shortage of beds means that detained patients can be sent hundreds of miles away from their homes and families. Presumably the “symbolic reassurance” of new guidance costs less to develop than adequate services.

Mismatch between values and realities

The attempt to tie social work to a set of moral values and professional ethics creates a burden of expectation that is often not supported in our terms of employment.

We are encouraged to challenge inequality and injustice wherever we find it, including within our own services, however the mechanisms for us to challenge our employers or the protection we need in doing so are unclear. This is an invitation to bullying and intimidation and makes blowing the whistle a dangerous step.

Learning to say no

To protect ourselves from the ‘fantasy’ version of the profession, social workers need to toughen up as individuals and learn to say no. This takes strength and confidence and is best done with the support of colleagues. and if necessary through professional associations or trade unions.

But if we can apply some of the passion and commitment we have for providing services to our clients to our own health and wellbeing, then we can achieve something.

It requires a commitment to oneself, rather than always putting the needs of others first and many of us find this difficult. But I would suggest it is essential for a healthy professional persona and a good work life balance.

Community Care is conducting what we hope will be the largest study of social worker burnout in the UK, to provide us with hard evidence to take to ministers, MPs, council leaders and senior managers. The survey takes around 10 minutes to complete, you can read more information and take part here.

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.

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