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.
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.