Feeling isolated in social work? Mentoring could help

The emotional demands of social work make support networks vital

Picture: apinan/fotolia

By Zoe Betts

Few social workers chose this career out of a desire to fill out forms or write assessments. Many joined to learn about people, make connections with them, and to better understand and support individuals and situations.

These days we seem to spend more time battling technology, bureaucracy and budget cuts, than maintaining that all too important human-to-human contact we know lies at the heart of good social work. That includes contact with colleagues, who we know can offer valuable knowledge and support.

I’ve written extensively about the ways my practice has improved by linking with more experienced people, but I underestimated the emotional support it would also bring.

When you debrief with someone who already has an understanding of the pressures you’ve faced that day – whether that’s challenges around getting a case through panel, meetings with families about sensitive decisions, or dealing with incredibly complex cases – the conversation already starts at an advantage. Not only can that person relate to the matters, they can also offer support and advice.

I remember a hospital case where I struggled to find a suitable discharge destination for a patient and the prolonged admission was taking its toll on the service user. Talking this through with people who understood what routes and options could be considered helped me to contemplate alternative options.

I have my own network of colleague friends, who are social workers and managers. By talking through cases with them, we can all input in ways that we recognise are helpful, simply from knowing the contexts under which we all work.

This is particularly important because it’s often very difficult to offload the stresses in social work to people who do not fully understand the role. It can be such an intricate job and emotionally hard to manage at times. People who are unfamiliar can sometimes take a sympathetic approach, rather than a supportive one.

Other social workers and those within the profession can be well placed to offer support, encouragement, or advice. That does not need to come just from your immediate team either – there is nothing stopping us from getting better at knowing each other as one body of professionals. We need to improve this.

At a time when we are witnessing a wealth of social change and the retention of both newly qualified and qualified social workers comes under increasing threat, we should be asking: how well are we advocating for each other through this difficult time? What are we missing? Support? Funding? Motivation? Or something else?

My view for a long time has been that the intermittent isolation coupled with the pressure is at times a problematic mix. There is certainly no easy task ahead, but as active participants in this career we can network with key people to develop our own peer networks and help us stay updated and connected.

I’ve seen the benefits of this by running iamsocialwork. It keeps me in touch with some brilliant people and has also allowed me to put social workers in touch with other practitioners better placed to offer support with a particular query or issue.

This has led to new support links being created – a brilliant outcome, but surely that’s the whole point? We should be a connected workforce that actively supports one another. The events I run may serve as a catalyst for directing that support, but it’s also about people putting in what they want to get out of it.

I have felt for some time that our links nationally could be better, some people are wonderfully connected through social media but there is still a large proportion of people who do not use that platform. Through the new events I am running nationally in September, I’ve decided to introduce a mentor scheme across all eight events.

People will be given the option to opt in and we will connect everybody with another person for a suggested one email exchange per month. People may choose to have a phone call or a Skype – whatever format works best for them – but everyone will come out of it with at least one new connection.

I am not trying to revolutionise anything, it’s so simple and if by enhancing outcomes for practitioners, we also achieve this in some way for service users, then that’s a positive thing.

iamsocialwork is running a series of eight UK wide support and networking events from September 7th – 21st.. For details and to register in advance please see www.eventbrite.co.uk (search ‘iamsocialwork’) or email hello@iamsocialwork.com.

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