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.
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’.