By Elizabeth Rylan*
Graduating as a social worker can be both exciting and daunting in equal measure. While throwing off ‘student’ status and entering the world of work brings many perks (not least the start of regular paydays!) it also brings many new challenges.
From my own experience and through supporting others through this transition, there can be a complex mix of emotions. Navigating the first few weeks and months in practice can feel like being on a rollercoaster. But remember, as well as the lows there will be the highs. Here are my top tips for surviving the twists and turns that will come your way. Hang on tight…!
1 You know more than you might think…
If you have successfully passed the social work degree course, then hopefully this means you are an intelligent and creative individual who has developed maturity and personal attributes alongside your formal learning. Trust in these qualities, and in yourself; recognising what you do know is not to be underestimated.
Remember that social work at its core is about people. It is about relationships and communication. The nature of that communication and the exchange of information may change depending on the situation at hand, but often it comes down to being able to walk into a room and begin a conversation. You may not be an expert in the subject in question, but trust in your ability to engage with others, demonstrate sincerity and show respect and tolerance.
2…but you don’t know everything
That being said, it is easy to be over eager and to think that now you are qualified you are suddenly a professional expert. Anyone who thinks this may well find that the first few months in practice bring them down a peg or two. There is no need to apologise for being new in your job, but equally there is a lot to be said for showing humility and grace.
Remember the adage ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. There is always a lot to learn, no matter how long you have been in practice. The constant process of education can be tiring, but it is also a joy in itself to be continually learning and presented with new challenges.
3 Managers are not mind readers
I have been fortunate in my career so far that even if I haven’t always agreed with my manager, I have respected them and have always felt that they have genuinely wanted to support me, the team and our clients. That being said, they can only support you if they know what type of assistance is needed. If you are drowning in unfinished paperwork then say so. How can they know that you need time out unless you stop smiling and nodding every time they ask how you are?
4 Manage yourself
I cannot change who I am, for example, I am a worrier and always have been. For a long time I tried to deny it and told myself to stop worrying. But that didn’t work and just built things up even more. So I changed tack, acknowledged it and decided to go with it. It isn’t productive to spend my whole day tied up in knots so I started allocating myself time to worry. It might sound ridiculous but it worked. I would tell myself that I didn’t have time to worry right then but that I was ‘allowed’ to later – that didn’t deny the emotion but stopped it getting in the way, and often when the allocated slot came around my thoughts had moved onto something else anyway.
It’s a technique I no longer need to use but was invaluable when I first qualified. Now when I feel worried, I trust my gut instinct that it is with good cause and I have come to understand the positive that lies underneath what is often perceived as an undesirable emotion. For me, I worry because I care. That nagging voice is my conscience telling me that something isn’t as it should be and it spurs me on to put it right. Try to identify your character traits – even those you perceive as negative – and find ways to channel them to positive effect.
5 Have the confidence to say yes…
It’s often said that we regret what we didn’t do more than what we did do. That certainly rings true with me, and I often look back and wish I had had the self-belief to seize an opportunity when it came my way. I know rationally that I may have quite rightly turned an offer down because I wasn’t ready for it at the time, but I now also know that I am the type of person who perhaps never feels ‘ready’ and that sometimes I just need to stop overanalysing the possible outcomes to every hypothetical scenario and just go for it.
Be open to opportunities and embrace different learning opportunities. Perhaps a new local authority service is being developed and they want a practitioner view, or a local voluntary sector organisation wants to link in more to statutory services and needs someone to give a talk to their volunteers about what social workers actually do. You never know what skills you may uncover, what you might learn or who you might meet.
6…and the courage to say no
I have seen countless examples of colleagues moaning about being overworked, stressed and emotionally wrung out but not raising this further. We all need to let off steam every now and then, but saying one thing to your peers and another to your seniors is not professional. If you really do feel that way, then you need to speak up.
If you don’t stand up for and look after yourself, then how can you effectively advocate for clients?It is ok to say no to your colleagues and your managers. Just make sure you are clear, calm and reasonable while doing so. You will also need to say no to others – clients, families, agencies and many more. You will not always be able to meet the expectations that are placed on you by others and you need to learn how to deal with their and your reactions to this. You may not always be liked, but hopefully you will be respected.
7 This will pass
Every meeting will draw to a close. Every day will end. The weeks will keep rolling by. Yet when you are in the middle of a difficult situation it can feel all-consuming and as if there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Hard times will happen, but nothing lasts for ever. Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and get through it, but that doesn’t mean that you have to do so alone.
Use your own resilience and draw on encouragement from others, whether that is through family, friends, colleagues or more formal support services. And remember that you don’t have to put up with things that are simply unacceptable. Life circumstances may mean that you can’t just up and leave your job at the drop of a hat, but it is important to know when enough is simply enough and you need some time out, with no shame or sense of failure attached.
8 Build your team
That colleague that always grabs you at 4.55pm and wants to rant about processes that changed months ago. The one that never makes the tea. The one that always causes but never unblocks the printer paper jam. Well, that’s your team and you need them all. There will come a time when you are the one desperate for someone to support you on a tricky visit or cover duty for you on a Friday afternoon. A little bit of kindness goes a long way. Show tolerance and build respect. Be there for others – not just so you have favours in the bank for when you need them, but because we all need someone to stand by us every now and then.
9 Learn from your mistakes
It is inevitable that you will do something wrong at some point. You will do or say something, or omit to do so, and it will come back to bite you. With new starters, I always hope that a blunder comes sooner rather than later – get the first one out of the way! You need to learn how to deal with errors when they arise. Be honest about them – trying to hide something is never a good idea and it is only by acknowledging that something didn’t go as well as it could that you can build on it for next time and use that as motivation to keep developing your practice.
Most things can be put right with a combination of hard work, patience and support from others. Also be kind to yourself – unless you intentionally set out to hurt someone, a mistake does not make you a bad person or show that you are not cut out to be a social worker.
10 Take time out for you
Social work is a physically and emotionally demanding profession and we give a lot of ourselves. We do this because we care. It can, of course, be highly rewarding, but it can be draining, and I cannot emphasise strongly enough how important it is to look after yourself and prioritise doing so. Don’t be a martyr; running yourself into the ground isn’t going to do anyone any good.
Find out what works for you to unwind and recharge. Whether it is being sociable and getting out and about, or simply taking the time to stay in, turn off your phone and read, have a bath or a nap. For me? Well, I am more than a little partial to a massage, and I love Friday night pizza in my pyjamas catching up on my favourite TV!
Before you know it, the days, weeks and months will pass and you will be well into your career. And then you can share your acquired wisdom with the new starters who come after you. Deep breath, dive in and enjoy it!
*Elizabeth Rylan is a pseudonym for an adults’ social worker based in a local authority in the south of England