‘I constantly questioned whether I was cut out to be a social worker’

An adults' social worker describes the feeling of having a crash in confidence - and how to get through it

Photo: Cultura/REX Shuttershock (posed by model)

by Nigella Howarth

Increasing client numbers, budget cuts, reduced staffing and the increasingly fast pace of social work can all add to spiralling feelings of inadequacy and inability to cope.

In these circumstances, professional resilience needs to be fluid. It is a tool to support you not to beat yourself up with.

Recently, everything I’ve known about myself, everything I’ve held as fact, has been brought into question.

I have worked in a local authority for over 15 years. I have seen changes come and go then change back under new structures but nothing prepared me for a loss of belief in myself and needing to seek professional help from colleagues.

In adult social care, you expect to see clients lose their lives. People you have worked with for years, families you have held together during their crisis and people’s whose health has deteriorated do pass on.

Questioning myself

But, what do we do to look after ourselves?

My crash came after several clients died in a very short period of time.

Professionally, it made me reevaluate my role. While each person had achieved their outcomes by either being at home or with family when they died it led me to question myself as a social worker.

At the same time I had personal anniversaries to deal with, emotions were high and each new loss affected me further. The volume of work was relentless and if I had not stopped to reflect or speak to someone it would have been very clear that burnout​ was imminent.

My coping strategy was to withdraw. I struggled to be in the office so would use every excuse to be busy elsewhere. Staff meetings became challenging so I always had a crisis which would call me away. One-to-one time with my manager, which I had always valued and protected, became impossible to focus on and left me feeling like I needed to escape.

What else could I do?

I constantly questioned whether or not I was cut out to be a social worker. Should I consider a career change? What else could I do career wise? I remember looking at the local supermarket job page and thinking should I click ‘apply’?

But my reason for being a social worker never left me. I still wanted to bring social change to individuals and families, to support individuals to achieve their goals and to help someone make a difference to their own lives.

While I don’t believe my feelings affected my approach to my cases, I do feel I became increasingly self-critical, emotionally reactive after interventions and increased my working hours as I became concerned I wasn’t doing enough.  

I recall spending hours of my own time completing a case audit, just to confirm what I already knew – I had done everything within my power and more for a particular client.

Not the end

So how did I turn this around? My manager didn’t give up offering support, they were constantly there beside me. They arranged additional reflective supervision to give me safe space away from my team.

Counselling was suggested, and although I initially declined it I was encouraged and it did help. Case management was monitored as were additional responsibilities and ‘no’ became my new mantra.

When asked to take on new work or assist someone with a piece of work e.g. ‘could you just’, or ‘this will only take 10 minutes’, I started saying no. Nothing ever takes 10 minutes and when you are already beyond your own capacity, little things very quickly tip the world of balance into chaos.

Crashes in professional confidence don’t mean the end of a career, but they can mean that help is required. Getting through it is about having an open dialogue with those around you and admitting ‘I’m not ok at the moment, but with your support I will be’.

It’s also about recognising, no matter how dark and isolated the path may feel, we are not alone as professionals, there are support structures around us, so thank you to the people who have kept me safe, for their support and for not losing faith in me.

Nigella Howarth is a pseudonym. She is an adults’ social worker. 

4 Responses to ‘I constantly questioned whether I was cut out to be a social worker’

  1. bignev June 5, 2017 at 1:16 pm #

    Difficult, very similar to myself, death of my mother, more pressure at work and a change of management style plus being under redundancy for the second time in 18 months did not help. Watching long term managers not being offered suitable positions after interview, being made redundant, all added to the climate of fear, eventually i broke, went off, came back, interviewed for my own job, did,nt get it and was out of the door in 3 months, 15 years experience gone in a 45 minute interview. Looking back its very easy to criticise yourself for not being stronger, but circumstances can build up.
    Good caring management is all that is needed.

  2. Abouttosnap June 5, 2017 at 8:42 pm #

    I’m feeling like this at the moment, except I’m two years in, constant pressure, “this is a quick one, that’s never is”rubbish IT, crisis after crisis and I’m starting to feel panic. Things at home have fallen to pieces, my marriage is struggling and I’m so tired. I’m not sure this is worth it, managers are changing all the time and the current one is ineffective, and feels wish washy compared to my old manager who was clear and concise, she doesn’t follow,through which adds to my anxiety that I’m alone with the voice in my head telling me this isn’t worth it, and I’m rubbish at my job. I’m about to snap.

  3. Hardy June 6, 2017 at 10:35 am #

    very much empathise with the scenario however in my case there was no management support just constant criticism, and I was constantly and consistently working on unpaid hours depriving both my family and social life.
    However strong a professional is with ethics and resilience after all we are all humans. If we are not careful our own profession can destroy us and no counselling can bring one self back.
    no wonder local authorities are constantly recruiting and no one put efforts in retention constructively.

  4. Jody June 6, 2017 at 5:17 pm #

    What an emotional story. So sad to also hear the replies above! 🙁

    Thank you for sharing this Nigella. I am so glad that it came to a more positive ending. You are exactly right that support is there and you need to recognize your own limits in this job.

    I too work for adults in hospital discharge. It is fast paced and often crisis management, with people passing away suddenly.

    To all readers (especially those above) I would say, don’t lose sight of the amazing job that we do! Social work is a team effort and we need to work together, support one another, and achieve positive outcomes for everyone. If you are struggling – seek support.

    We are in a difficult period with budget cuts, increased caseloads and low staffing levels. But you are right – sometimes you need to step up and say “No”. We are not machines and we can only do so much.

    You can’t help service users if you are not managing to look after yourself!

    Supervision is effective when done right, but I find that also talking to my work colleagues is equally effective. Take time to go out for lunch or set up a protected monthly peer support group where you can share experiences, difficulties, and learn from one another.

    This job IS worth it! Hang in there 🙂