How I used cycling to build my social work resilience after burning out

A social worker who was forced to leave her job due to burnout talks about building her resilience

Photo: Richsteiger/Fotolia

by Roseanna Freiburghaus

Stuck behind the wheel in an endless stream of cars and fumes. I was late again to my next visit. I’d already sent the weekly text to friends to say I wouldn’t be able to make that yoga class. As I sat in standstill traffic, I angrily picked at yet another parking ticket from being five minutes late to move the car (no free parking by the office).

On the way home as I switched between ruminating on the difficult conversations from the last visit and shouting at the car in front I realised my shoulders were tense and my jaw tight.

As I finally pulled up by my flat at 8.30pm the lights weren’t on as we’d run out of electric. I panicked, realising I hadn’t had time to do those expenses three months in a row. And I still had a report to write. No matter how hard I tried to bite my lip, I yelled at my partner for not making tea despite getting home three hours before me.

In the morning, I didn’t have time for breakfast before I hit the road to miss rush hour and prepare for an ICPC. I didn’t have the time or energy to see that I was heading towards burn out.

Trying to find a definition of resilience for social work that goes beyond an individual’s ability to cope with stress and bounce back from setbacks is difficult.

As a newly qualified social worker, I saw resilience as something social workers were told they didn’t have enough of when they expressed concern over unrealistic workloads and a lack of structural support. I also only heard people talk about ’emotional’ resilience, which seemed odd: stress also affects us mentally, socially and physically.

Emotionally it can leave us feeling overwhelmed, highly irritable, with low self esteem and high levels of anxiety. Mentally, it can make us worry, struggle to concentrate, and unable to make any decisions outside of work.

Physically, it can give us headaches, we can develop back and shoulder pain, and have problems sleeping. Socially, stress can make us snap at others, lose contact with friends, and avoid people and situations we think will make our stress worse. If this was a checklist, I could tick all the symptoms.  

Letting more than myself go

I felt stuck in a catch-22 situation. I knew what I needed to do to build resilience and coping strategies that worked for me: strong connections to friends and family, eat well, exercise, and a good work to life balance.

But the long working hours to fit in visits, meetings, conferences, referrals and report writing meant I didn’t have time to see friends, exercise or eat well. The way I saw it, something had to give, either the work or myself. I didn’t realise that in the end I would be letting more than myself go.

Having had training in systemic conceptualisation I believed resilience couldn’t just be about an individual’s innate coping abilities, and needed to be supported at other levels. I tried to put in place organisational supports by having open conversations with my manager about workload, accepted counselling when reflective supervision wasn’t possible, and paid for professional coaching.

When a tragedy in my personal life hit, it pushed me beyond my ability to cope. One day in the office on the second floor I found myself thinking about jumping out of the window and realised things had gone too far. Not long after this, I reluctantly handed in my notice.

I spent the next twelve months delivering an edge of care intervention and privately focusing on recovering from burnout and building resilience. I read and watched as much as I could on the subject. Jane McGonigal in a TedTalk introduced me to ‘post traumatic growth’ and the concept of  ’emotional’, ‘physical’, ‘mental’ and ‘social’ resilience to stress.

It makes sense that if stress affects us in all those ways, then we should be thinking about building our resilience to stress at all those levels. I started practising simple daily activities to boost my physical, emotional, social and mental resilience.

Looking at photos of baby animals might sound daft, but evoking powerful positive emotions increases our ability to problem solve. Sending messages to friends or giving a hug also sounds small but not when you consider how it gives us powerful feedback loops and strengthens our support network.

Swimming lengths and running miles meant I was building my mental willpower and physical strength. This in turn increased my concentration, ability to complete tasks and positive perspective.

Pedalling hard

The only problem still was trying to fit exercise into long working days. Riding a bike for work seemed like the obvious solution. A year later when I started my next child protection social work job I knew being able to cycle to and during work was imperative.

Now instead of shouting at other cars in rush hour traffic, I grin as I speed past them, racing colleagues to a joint visit I will be on time for. I eat breakfast, because I need the fuel for the ride. And I don’t need to get in early to finish a report, I’ve already finished it in normal working hours before the deadline because I had the headspace to effectively manage my time.

On my way to my next core group, I’m not staring at the lights begging them to change, I’m planning how I will lead the meeting. And on the way back I reflect on what went well and where I need to improve. And now after a particularly emotionally difficult home visit I’m not thinking of unhealthy coping strategies, I’m processing the traumatic experiences confided in me by pedalling hard and allowing myself to accept the feelings and thoughts.

And when I get home I suddenly have an evening, to cook, to spend time with family and friends, go to yoga classes.  

My journey with resilience has shown me that resilience isn’t just about a person’s innate ability to cope emotionally. It’s taking a holistic approach to building our physical, emotional, mental and social resilience to stress – they are all connected.

What made things easier in my second social work role was a manageable caseload, and a focus on reflective supervision, combined with my own personal coping strategies. It’s not just the individual’s responsibility, it’s a shared responsibility with organisations to promote healthy working conditions with realistic expectations. But while we can’t always control how organisations support us, we can be clear on what we need to survive.

Cycling isn’t easy or possible for everyone, and in social work it’s not possible every day. If you have a bike it’s an incredible way to build your mental, social, emotional and physical resilience, save money, beat traffic, fit exercise into your normal routine, and not have to fill in complicated expenses forms every month unless your council has a cycle to work scheme, then you can claim mileage for your bike. And if cycling isn’t an option, I hope the lessons I learnt about building holistic resilience can be applied to strategies that work for you.

Roseanna Freiburghaus is a children’s social worker

Please take the time to consider your own mental health, and seek support if you need it. In the UK, the Samaritans can be reached for free on 116 123.

4 Responses to How I used cycling to build my social work resilience after burning out

  1. Paul June 18, 2019 at 10:13 pm #

    This is an amazing and powerful piece and an inspiration for many who are and have been in the public sector I am sure. I completely identify with the challenges depicted here. The sleep deprivation through an involuntary review and rehearsal loop as my head hit the pillow did it for me. I had my first good night’s sleep for two years once I submitted my resignation. Thank you very much for this.

  2. denis June 19, 2019 at 12:03 pm #

    As a social worker I identify with everything you have said, a question I would pose for reflection for ourselves as employees and to management and agency : Why if you have to take time of work or need to leave employment because of ‘work related stress’ that it is not categorized as ‘Occupational Injury’. as would be the case if it were a physical injury.

  3. Lily May June 22, 2019 at 12:33 am #

    I am glad you took time out, and you sound happy in your new role. Sadly your experience about ‘getting back into’ CP SW (after a break where you were almost on the verge of burnt out) is not the normal experience of obtaining a role with a ‘work / life balance’. After almost 22 years in front line CP work, I have had ‘enough’, and if I am honest with myself, I have been on the edge of burn out for the past 5-6 years. I am making plans to get out of a field which is underfunded, unsupported, understaffed, unappreciated, and under-resourced. I will not miss it.

  4. Anon June 27, 2019 at 2:00 pm #

    It’s positive to know that you demonstrate so much resilience and how you being on your bike has build your psychological and physical resilience.

    However in Lincolnshire where we cover large areas and have to travel nearly 200 miles every week for visits and meetings, I am afraid bike will not be practical.

    Social workers are creative and they will try their best to look after themselves.