By Lindsay Giddings
You’ve done it. Placements are finished, assignments are handed in and now you’re a fully qualified and registered social worker. Hurrah! Before you go and dive into the office cake (we’ll come back to that), here are some top tips that should stand you in good stead as you go out into the big wide world of social work practice…
Write your notes now, not later
You’ve just got to the office. You’ve made your coffee/tea (no other drinks options available now, social worker). You’ve had a quick scan of your emails to make sure there’s nothing urgent that the Emergency Duty Team have sent to you overnight. You need to make three phone calls, write two referrals and finish a report before the end of the day.
Before you do any of those things, the first thing you need to do is write up that visit from last night. If you didn’t have time to do it after the visit, you need to do it now. All of those other tasks will still be waiting for you, they’re not going anywhere. But doing this first serves two purposes.
Firstly, you will have achieved something – yippee! But more importantly, that visit is still fresh in your mind and you will be able to record it in a way that is meaningful to you now, will be meaningful if you need to refer to it in six months’ time and will be meaningful to the child, young person, adult or their family should they ever request their files.
The people you spent time with last night, be it a child, family, adult or whoever, they let you into their space and they spent time with you. You owe it to them to respect that interaction with a meaningful write up. It’s highly likely that if you don’t do it now, you’ll only realise next week that you didn’t do it, and the meaningful story that you could have crafted will be reduced to two or three stock sentences, that don’t do your work justice. Someone in your team is going to say this to you soon enough, so we’ll get it out the way here… If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen.
Don’t make false promises
This one might take some time to master. But don’t offer more than you have, and don’t say you’ll do things you won’t be able to do. This covers a whole range of aspects of your job. From the huge and significant and probably more obvious – don’t promise somebody in hospital they can go home, for example, when you don’t know whether that’s going to happen (that’s not in your control, and you shouldn’t be promising that to anyone.)
This also applies to the more everyday aspects of your job too. If you say you’re going to call a service user or a professional back, do it. If you ring people back they will respect you. Even if it’s just to say that you don’t have an answer yet or that you need to call them back tomorrow.
Don’t take work home over the weekend
Don’t work over and above every night and every weekend because you’ll just get given more work. (That phrase about giving jobs to busy people? Never more true than in a social work team). Obviously sometimes there will be a court report that has to be written by tomorrow, but there will always be more to do, and no matter how many evenings and weekends you work, it will never be finished. Saying this, it is also important to be a team player. So don’t always be the one to put your head down when duty needs covering or there’s a late visit needs doing. And this leads us seamlessly onto…
Be nice to yourself
Practice good self-care. Don’t eat the office biscuits and cakes as your sole source of nutrition, your body won’t thank you for it. Make an effort to have dinner with your friends or family. Don’t always cancel your own plans for work. Try and have a hobby or outside interest, even if it’s watching Line of Duty and talking to your dog (both good hobbies if you ask me). Try and have a hobby that’s good for you – mentally and physically. You really do need to look after yourself. This is super important. If you don’t look after yourself you won’t be an effective social worker for very long.
Take a lunch break
Even if it’s a ten minute walk or you sit in a different room and eat your food, just move away from your desk. This is probably the hardest one to do but it is really important, and with a bit of effort it can be achieved. If you are a manager reading this, ask your staff to take a break.
It’s really important for your eyes and your tummy and your soul to stop looking at the computer for ten minutes. You probably won’t be able to take a break every day, and there will be times when things will happen that mean that suddenly it’s the end of the day and you didn’t stop. But you can make time to pause for ten minutes most days.
Have a sense of humour
You are really going to need a sense of humour. Clearly there’s a time and a place, but don’t forget to see the sunshine sometimes. (Probably a good idea to get used to finding poo and wee funny as well if you don’t already, you’d be amazed how often you end up talking about it!)
Have another pen
Oh so important. This cannot be stressed enough. You cannot have enough pens. The stationary cupboard (if there is one) will never have a black biro when you need it. Always take more than one if it’s been restocked. Have a stash in your office if you can. Keep some in your bag. Have one in your pocket or your car or your lunchbox or your locker, or anywhere you’ve managed to claim as your own. This probably should be number one on the list. Always make sure you have a spare pen. Always make sure you have a spare spare pen.
Always have something to engage service users
This is almost as important as the pens. Always have somethings in your back pocket (literally, if you need to!) It can be a packet of colouring pens and a notebook if you work with children, it can be dolls, it can be a stress reliever squishy thing for adults, a funny anecdote that always makes people smile, anything.
There will be times when you unexpectedly have to spend long periods of time with people in unexpected situations and places that can be really stressful, and if you can distract someone and relieve their stress for even a moment, you’re doing a really good job. This is a lot easier if you’re prepared!
Get to know local resources
This one is going to save you so much time and help you and your service users a lot. Get to know your area. Get to know the services that are out there that work alongside your own. Whatever you are doing, you will need to know the local housing department, the local job centre, the local police, the local health services…the list goes on.
If you want to be really on top of your game here, keep a book with names and numbers in (or a contacts list on your computer, but a book gets you lots of bonus points with your colleagues and helpfully they can also add to it!) Keep the names of not just the relevant professional, but the people who can actually help you too – for example, knowing a paediatrician’s name is important, knowing the name and number of their secretary is invaluable.
Keep up to date
You will never be as up to date with policies and legislation as you are right now. Right now, you have an overview that most of your colleagues probably don’t have, because you will have an awareness outside of your area of practice. Try to keep this up. It is really helpful to keep up to date as you go along.
Sign up to one or two emails that will keep you up to date with news in the social work world (like Community Care!) Have a folder on your desktop where you can drop anything helpful that you see. This will also be useful if you want to show evidence of continuing professional development when you update your registration.
Supervision is really important. It serves a number of functions, and you need to make sure that it is meeting your needs from the outset. Most organisations have a supervision agreement or contract that the supervisor and supervisee will agree and sign at the beginning of their supervisory relationship.
Don’t see this as a chore, see this as an opportunity to make sure that you are getting what you need. Supervision is not just a management tool to keep you in check and make sure you have done your tasks, it is a reflective space for you to think about how you feel, how the way you feel is impacting upon your work, how you think your service users are feeling…
You also need to remember that your line manager or whoever supervises you is not your only source of support. Peer supervision, whether that be a formal group supervision session or a chat with tea and cake (there’s that cake again!) can be just as important.
Know that tomorrow will probably be better
There are going to be days when you are going to question why you’re doing this. There will be weeks when the longing for Friday evening is so strong, it’s painful. But there will be a new day tomorrow, and it probably won’t be quite so bad.
Go for a walk if you have time. Watch something really rubbish on TV. Have a bath. Have an early night. Do whatever you need to do to get through today, and know that tomorrow will be better. Remember why you wanted to do this, take a deep breath and focus. You can even have that bit of cake now if you need to.
So, now you have the wisdom from someone who has learnt all of these the hard way. Now, if I could just find my pen…
Lindsay Giddings is a lecturer in social work at The Open University.