‘A three month career break stopped me quitting social work’

A social worker explains how time out re-inspired her practice, and tells employers why offering planned extended leave could improve retention

woman looking at view from mountains
Photo: Poprotskiy Alexey/Fotolia

By a children’s social worker

The first half of 2018 felt like the worst time of my life, on a personal level and with what seemed like the never-ending demands upon me as a social worker. I knew something needed to change and I made a decision that I hope will inspire others and be considered as a possible solution to the challenges social work faces in recruitment and retention. My decision was to take planned, extended, unpaid leave.

I had wanted to be a social worker for such a long time. After working in residential care for a number of years, I finally started my degree in 2013 at the age of 28. I had a real desire to help others, to be their voice and try to make life better by keeping people safe.

My degree did not prepare me for life as a social worker; only by the end of my final placement did I really understand the demands of the role and how social work would take over my life.

Before moving to a child protection and court team in the summer of 2018, I had been holding approximately 30 cases in an assessment team and feeling completely overwhelmed. Staff were leaving, management kept changing and I felt like I wasn’t ‘doing social work’.

I wanted to get my passion and drive back but felt like I was drowning in my caseload

I felt frustrated that most of my time was sat at my desk when I wanted to be with children, playing and listening to their lived experiences. I felt like I was failing as a social worker and at times questioned if I even wanted to be one anymore, despite my years of dreaming and hard work to get here.

I wanted to get my passion and drive back but I felt like I was drowning in my caseload and the demands and pressures of deadlines, reports and assessments. I felt there was no option but to take a significant amount of planned time off.

I decided to travel, something I had always wanted to do but never felt able to due to work commitments and various other reasons. I spoke to my manager at the time and also with the head of service, who in principle agreed my request.

Waiting

Sadly this didn’t easily translate into arranging to take the leave. A move to another team, and yet another loss in the management team meant I had to start the process again. I submitted my application and waited… and waited. This was stressful, I had already booked my tickets based on the provisional agreement and was mentally committed to the trip; I couldn’t consider cancelling. Eventually I had to point out that if my request was not accepted, I would need to hand in my notice and work my last two months before going away.

It was daunting to think I could return to no job but given the current issues in recruiting social workers, I felt confident I would be able to find new employment.

Then finally, I got a response, allowing me to take three months unpaid leave. But the time it took and uncertainty left me feeling undervalued as a committed employee. I found myself questioning whether or not I wanted to stay in my local area and with the local authority.

However, I decided to focus on my trip and the break I knew I needed. I took myself to Asia and explored Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. I wanted to open my eyes, mind, heart and soul to the world. I wanted to find myself and ultimately restore my passion for social work. In time, I felt myself reflecting on my practice and how I wanted to return and adopt new ways of working to ensure that primarily my families were safe, but that also, so was I! I resolved to put in place boundaries to keep a healthy work/life balance to avoid further burnout.

I started to think about the unplanned long-term sickness I had in 2017 and about colleagues who had needed time off sick to recharge. I thought about the chaos that this creates and how at short notice, a whole caseload needs to be reallocated and the impact of this on staff who are already drowning. It got me thinking about how my break for travelling was planned in advance. It had been spoken about for months so my manager had time to consider my cases and make plans for them. I was able to bring certain cases to a close and do handovers for others, introducing the new social worker and leaving detailed case notes to help them take on my work.

A positive choice

My experience has led me to see planned extended leave as a positive choice. In my case, it stopped me from quitting as a social worker. Travelling allowed me the headspace and time I needed to really recharge my batteries and reflect upon why I became a social worker and why I want to continue as one. It got the fire burning again and made me excited about going back to work and what’s next in respect of my career.

I appreciate that not everyone wants to or can afford to go travelling; people might want to do something different with a few months’ break. And not everyone wants to take extended leave. However I think having it as an option may take away some of the anxiety and stress that can build up for social workers. I believe it would reduce short notice sick leave and burnout, and ultimately reduce the number of social workers leaving their jobs.

Not enough focus is given to permanent staff…loyal and committed to their local authority

Where I work, there is an on-going battle to recruit and retain social workers. It feels like a constant stream of permanent and agency staff are hired but don’t stay. I have heard numerous conversations about improving retention, but nothing seems to change. I know this is a national problem, not something unique to my local authority.

My personal opinion is that not enough focus is given to the importance of permanent staff that are willing to stay – those that have been here for years, that swallow the fact that many of their colleagues are agency and earn approximately double their salary, those that remain loyal and committed to their local authority.

If I was in a position to influence recruitment and retention policy at a local or national level, I would seriously consider the positive value of offering planned extended leave. In other sectors, extended leave or sabbaticals are a given and part of employee’s contracts and I wonder if it could be piloted in social work to test some of these questions:

  • Would it attract social workers to a specific organisation or into the profession?
  • Could it act as an incentive earned through a number of years’ continuous service?
  • Could it extend the average ‘shelf life’ of social workers, particularly in high pressure areas?
  • Could it make economic sense for extended leave to be paid?

I don’t think we can untangle the safety and wellbeing of children from recruitment and retention issues. Burnt out staff cannot give their best, and constantly changing social worker is regularly cited as a reason why risks have been missed or young people and adults have experienced delay in or disengaged from support and interventions. My break has recharged and re-inspired me to continue in practice and it seems evident to me that we need to keep social workers safe, make them feel valued and keep them in post so that they can work effectively with children and families.

Since I got back, I might be sitting in the same building as before I left but I know something has shifted in my thinking. I feel more positive and focused; it has given me back the ‘fire in my belly’ for social work and already I am looking at how to progress my practice. I would be lying if I said the travelling bug is completely out of my system, however right now I am glad to be back at work. And it’s always nice when colleagues say you look ‘refreshed’ and ‘happy’.

10 Responses to ‘A three month career break stopped me quitting social work’

  1. Anonymous June 6, 2019 at 7:33 am #

    Good for you. You have done what every social worker dreams of.

    • CJ June 7, 2019 at 5:23 pm #

      What a fantastically well written and heartfelt piece of inspiration. You’ve done something which I had wanted to do a while back until circumstances changed and I suffered a major bereavement, which meant that I had a bit of a break from work anyway. However, I’m much happier in my current role and feel very supported and have the pleasure of working from home most of the time, along with a lot of autonomy, which I think goes a very long way to making me feel valued as a professional.

      I’m pleased for you that your break has recharged your batteries and it seems that the profession has been able to hold on to a much valued professional because you were able to take this much needed break.

      Best wishes

      CJ

  2. Sian June 6, 2019 at 12:53 pm #

    I worked as a social worker for many years and recognise the importance of needing support and the space to re charge so as to continue your passion and drive. I admire your decisions and I hope that it all works out for you, you are an inspiration.

  3. em June 6, 2019 at 4:38 pm #

    Food for thought. I bet lots of people feel this way.I’m at a crossroads, and have just been to the coast for 3 days. Felt so refreshed and energised when I returned to work, as I gort the headspace to have some clarity around my career

  4. tracie chant June 6, 2019 at 7:40 pm #

    Fantastic article to read. Well done.

  5. Tanya Jeyasingham June 6, 2019 at 7:41 pm #

    Love your bravery and spirit!

  6. Jacky June 7, 2019 at 9:01 am #

    The thing is the job must be structured so as not to lead to burn out in the first place. Social Workers are not disposable items whereby you burn through one and get another. We are entitled to self care on the job and to have organisations that support that. Support in meaningful ways re caseload and line management expertise and availability. Then Social Workers will self care, take walks, breath, exercise and enjoy their holidays as their own time rather than to recover from work. At that point a longer break would be great too!

    As an old hand I think it takes new Social Workers 2 yrs to learn that they may say no, to enquire what is not to be done if a new task is accommodated and to then stick their hand up when they can take more work. It’s the start of learning to self care, being able to stay and building a career which could last after all that hard work at Uni. That is to everyone’s gain, Worker, employer and the people we support.

  7. jim June 7, 2019 at 12:15 pm #

    having a long break is great, however I found when I returned after 18 months carers’ leave it was not long [about a week!] before the same old same old was there, however the only thing that made my week brighter was knowing that I was working 28 hours per week and not 37!..and while I was carrying the same caseload I was able to ”opt out” of a lot of extra things like going to certain meetings or additional non manadatory courses or acting as a rep on behalf of the social work group, or limiting the amount of cover I could give to colleagues on leave. I did this by having validity to refuse otherwise I could have insisted on refusing to take on some cases. Employers will let you do whatever you agree to or volunteer for no matter what your working hour are! So we ahve to stand up for ourselves as seldom will management stand up for us.

  8. Didgeroo June 9, 2019 at 7:36 pm #

    Sadly, it’s not a reality for most people to be able to take unpaid leave and travel.

  9. Alex Trembath June 10, 2019 at 9:30 am #

    This was inspiring to read. My wife and I took a year out of our careers to travel. She has returned to work refreshed and invigorated, and meanwhile we have started a business together to help people take travel career breaks. So naturally, I love your story and I am sure it will motivate others to follow a similar path!