‘How do I cope in social work? Blasting out Prince in the car helps’

A child protection social worker talks about why he joined the profession, and how he's working to help colleagues

Jason Barnes

Jason Barnes is always busy, which is what you’d expect from a child protection social worker. He’s also feeling positive which, bluntly, isn’t always what you’d expect from a child protection social worker given the pressures they face.

“As a person I have a natural disposition to be upbeat,” Jason says.

He’s on the go, driving through the occasional tunnel to make our (hands free, don’t worry) phone interview a bit more challenging, and presumably get somewhere far more important, when I ask what made him want to become a social worker.

“Sometimes I ask myself this question, Luke,” Jason laughs on the phone. “I feel fortunate to have known for a long time that I wanted to be a social worker as it has given me immense focus.”

Jason’s interest in the job started as a teenager. He’d read about social workers supporting children and families “when they were at their most vulnerable, most desperate, in a state of crisis”. It struck him this would be a job that was important, interesting, challenging, worthwhile – and one he might want to do some day.

The feeling stuck with Jason during university, where he studied sociology and theology. After graduating he applied for an MA in social work and qualified three years ago.

‘It was a really big deal’

He loves the job and describes cases that have meant a lot to him, including one where after six weeks of working closely with a boy who agencies had concerns about, the child made a disclosure about abuse.

“I [will] never forget the look on his face when he told me this piece of information, he was scared and emotional as well…It was a really big deal.”

“To be involved in children’s lives when everything is unravelling around them is always a challenge, however to play an integral part in creating safety, and seeing the safety materialise and flourish is more rewarding than any other career I could possibly think of.

“Social work, although often unnoticed and misunderstood by society generally, is vital to ensure a fair and just country where the most vulnerable are not forgotten.”

For the past year Jason has worked in West Sussex council’s Contact, Assessment and Intervention team. It’s a tough role and he admits there are times where it’s testing.

“As any social worker will tell you, the strains and expectations of our job can at times feel overwhelming. Alongside the practicalities and time constraints of chairing meetings, writing assessments and managing a caseload of 20-30 vulnerable children; visits to families require so much of your energy and enthusiasm.”

‘A job like no other’

Jason describes social work as “a job like no other” which can sometimes feel impossible as he’s required to give so much to familiarise himself with everything a case has to offer. Yet he believes social workers can overcome this by being upfront with colleagues, voicing concerns, recognising when they’ve hit capacity and using group supervision.

“Also, I highly recommend blasting music in the car: very therapeutic.”

Aside from the packed workload and proven therapeutic impact of ‘Kiss’ by Prince, Jason has found time to do something that will increase both.

Earlier this year he set up the Sussex Social Work Development Group. The group brings together social workers across East and West Sussex and Brighton to discuss issues in social work and practice in each local authority. The group has had three meetings so far, each attracting about 20 practitioners, and Jason hopes it will help social workers from the different councils share learning and support with each other.

“We’re not working together in any way across local authorities in terms of social work progression and our CPD.

“There needs to be correspondence between our [local authorities], but any time I’ve had to pick up the phone and speak to a social worker from East Sussex or Brighton and Hove, it felt quite daunting because the procedures are different and strangely each local authority feels like its own culture.”

All well and good, but where does he find the time?

Safe space

“There is a saying that you find time for what is important to you and I think there is an element of truth in that statement.

“Regrettably, the common narrative from social workers is that we are over-worked, often feel underappreciated and can become isolated and frustrated.

“[The group] gives us the opportunity to meet in an informal environment, outside of the confines of office blocks, with social workers from all across the region. It is almost impossible to retain a narrow view of social work when meeting in such a context.”

The group aims to provide a ‘safe space’ for frontline workers, says Jason. Part of that means, at the moment, social work managers can’t attend.

“When I established the group I felt it was important that our direct managers were not attending because I think that would impact on the group negatively,” Jason explains.

“If people felt that their managers were sat there beside them they wouldn’t be able to talk as openly or freely as they wanted to.

“The discussions which we’ve had at the group have been lively, respectful and honest. The clear intention of those attending is to learn from and feel a sense of community with other workers,” Jason says.

The group is finding a way to make its voice heard among their local authorities, so the issues just don’t sit inside the group and go nowhere.

Jason has met with each of the local authorities’ principal social worker, and a regional British Association of Social Workers ambassador, to discuss the future of the group. Key themes, worries and strengths discussed in the group is passed on to the principal social workers in each authority.

‘Always something to do’

Furthermore, its learning is being used as part of CPD: “We are able to demonstrate that we are meeting with other social workers in a cross-county context, and I think that is really powerful in evidencing that we are not narrow minded in our social work approach.”

So Jason is busy, unsurprisingly, and happy, perhaps more surprisingly after spending an extended period of time speaking to me.  Does he ever see a future for himself outside of child protection?

While he completely understands why people don’t stay in this role for very long, as the pace is “really quite relentless”, he doesn’t have any plans to move on.

“I love it. A part of me thinks if I went into a different role I would be really bored, because working in child protection there is always something to do, assessments to finish, visits to do, there’s always so much corresponding between a huge network of professionals that are around each child and their family.”

Jason Barnes tweets @jsnbarnes

The Sussex Social Work Development Group can be found on Facebook and Twitter

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4 Responses to ‘How do I cope in social work? Blasting out Prince in the car helps’

  1. Caroline Skinner August 16, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

    I am very impressed by this article and the attitude of the social worker (Jason) interviewed. I am a social work consultant / action learning facilitator and a great believer (anecdotally and theoretically) in the power of mutual support and learning in groups. I run action learning sets for both managers in Children’s Services and for ASYE projects, The most common theme throughout is how to keep well whilst managing the workload and the expectations of others in respect of social work. Frontline fast paced work suits some workers well but I can see two key resilience points in what Jason says that will bode him well throughout his career. His sense of humour and appreciation of loud music lend to a sense of perspective to distract from feeling overwhelmed in a role where there will always be too much to do! He also takes control of his time keeping in a focused and positive way combining his need for cpd and support from others.

    • Jason Barnes August 16, 2016 at 10:33 pm #

      Caroline thank-you for your thoughtful comment, it made me smile. You’ve hit the nail on the head!

  2. Lee Pardy-Mclaughlin August 16, 2016 at 6:47 pm #

    Great piece from Jason, aspirational and realistic at the same time. There are many social workers in adults and children’s services just like Jason who strive to balance the demands of our day to day work with a sense of perspective and professional self. Also good to see the work of the Sussex Social Work group leading the way, strong evidence here of what can work and make changes in a busy system. I will follow Jason!

  3. bek August 21, 2016 at 10:46 pm #

    Fantastic article, so accurate. Blasting music in the car and at home is incredibly therapeutic. It gives one time to clear the head and just get in to the music.