By Kayleigh Rose Evans
Standing up for ourselves in social work can feel impossible. As empathetic people, social workers are often so busy considering the needs and perspectives of others that we may ignore our own.
The term ‘setting boundaries’ means determining what you can and can’t do. It is a pragmatic response – not an avoidance issue.
Most of us have never been taught how to communicate our boundaries and end up feeling overwhelmed. Below are some tips on how to manage this.
1. Tackling anxiety triggers
Self-care is essential and ignoring it for one day can be manageable but doing so consistently can lead to feeling depleted.
I have started making more of a conscious effort to notice the little things that trigger my anxiety throughout the day so I can address them, rather than letting them become a monster.
A negative incident led me to realise the importance of this. I was in a new role and had not had the chance to establish a supportive network. One of the pieces of work I was involved in was becoming all-consuming and increasingly challenging, beyond anything I had managed before.
I worked late every day, often sitting alone and did not take breaks. I felt like things were mounting up and every email and phone call felt like a threat because I just couldn’t take anything else on. It came to a head after unsuccessfully trying to stifle a panic attack, resulting in me asking my manager if I could go home.
This is something I didn’t think would ever happen to me. Initially, I felt ashamed as some colleagues had seen me so upset. On reflection, I felt that this was not upholding the advice I was giving to others. I considered that I had internalised negative stigma around perceptions of mental health and society’s pressure to ‘always be in control’. There are always going to be those people who believe that vulnerability is a weakness, but I now believe it can be our greatest source of strength. So too is finding the right people to speak to.
Since then, I have made it known if I feel overloaded and recognise that good quality support and reflective supervision is essential in social work. I speak more openly with others about how I am feeling and was pleasantly surprised about how willing others were to share similar experiences and offer useful advice, as a result. I realised that my earlier actions made me feel alone but ended up helping me establish closer relationships with others and now I feel more confident in myself.
2. Don’t catastrophise mistakes
One thing that always causes that sinking feeling in me is when I am told I have made a mistake. Rather than sitting there and dwelling on it, taking a moment away from my desk or speaking to a trusted person helps me to gain perspective.
This was something I experienced during the beginning of the pandemic, as there were lots of changes to the systems we were working in. Whereas we usually have to seek approval for getting someone placed in a care home, I realised I had quickly got someone discharged from the hospital into a temporary placement without speaking to a manager. With the pressure of freeing up hospital beds, and the need to manage risks of people getting exposed to the virus, I acted with haste. After realising my mistake, I rang my manager in a state of panic. I was lucky that she responded kindly and taught me not to worry so much when these things happen.
She maintained a clear stance so, rather than jumping to conclusions and catastrophising the situation, she encouraged me to take a step back and focus on the fact that I had achieved a lot in my career rather than over-emphasising negatives. She has good principles and instilled in me the view that as long as we are not putting people at risk and trying our best despite challenges, that’s all we can do. I know others have struggled with system changes since the pandemic and talking about it helps us to gain perspective.
3. Find a trusted confidant(e)
Maintaining wellbeing is a joint responsibility between you and the organisation, so appropriate support should be available. There have been times in my early career where I waited too long to tell people I was feeling overloaded. Experience has taught me that it’s important to tell others when you feel this way as otherwise, no one knows you need the support. Having an agreement with someone where you can be honest about things you wouldn’t share with everyone can be extremely helpful.
4. Know how to access support from your organisation
However, it’s equally vital that this support is available to you formally through the organisation. Accessing supervision is important but so is knowing how to access confidential support. I have faced situations where I needed assistance in processing the psychological impact that I was experiencing.
After receiving threats and harassment from someone I was involved in supporting, I was unsure about how to manage this situation. In that instance, it was clear that I needed the support of someone with expertise around emotional regulation. I received some invaluable support from the employee assistance programme. This then led me to have a constructive conversation with my manager about how to manage the case to best support the individual, but also to ensure I and future workers felt safe when working on a case.
Once I started to be a better advocate for myself, I have become more confident and a better social worker
5. Treat yourself like someone you are helping
“Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping,” says Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. This advice has helped me in terms of my self-talk.
If my inner critic is being negative, I now consider whether I would speak that way to someone else in the same situation. That leads to a more reassuring response; that I am only human and I am not going to be perfect.
This often helps me when I need to stop my tangent thoughts around feeling that I am letting everyone down. This feeling can easily arise due to the nature of the contemporary practice: trying to balance managing the paperwork while retaining a clear focus on being there for the individuals we serve.
Something that’s helped me is to remember that I am working as part of a larger system, rather than feeling overwhelmed with the level of responsibility that I am carrying. One practical thing that’s helped me is to always ensure the people I am supporting have various ways of acquiring support when needed. This helps to remove the feelings of anxiety around missing phone calls.
6. Plan your week to minimise pressure on yourself
An immediate way to improve wellbeing and maximise efficacy is to think carefully about how you plan your work and time. My less-experienced self would not think twice about planning multiple complex visits on a Friday. As a result, I would constantly find myself working late and when additional emergencies arose, this would put more pressure on me, particularly as there would be less access to team support at that time.
Where possible, I now try to organise my visits earlier in the week, allowing more time for me to manage unexpected issues.
7. Take charge of prioritising your work
Not responding to emails immediately would leave me feeling guilty. Learning how to organise my workload as opposed to allowing others to prioritise their tasks over mine has also helped.
Instead of dipping in and out of tasks, I am more intentional now and group similar activities together, where possible.
If you feel under attack from tasks coming at you from all directions, just stop what you are doing. Sometimes the best thing to do is just write a list of everything that needs to be done. This helps you to take back control and will equip you to recognise when you need support or when to justify not taking on more work. It has helped me to avoid those moments where I have felt I needed to explain that I was busy even when my diary was empty.
Set it as an ongoing priority to develop an organisational strategy that works for you.
Using a table on Microsoft Word to break my caseload and tasks down, along with a colour coding system for priorities works well, as I prefer having visual aids. Setting aside 15 minutes at the end of the day to add to this helps to avoid worrying that something is going to be forgotten overnight.
8. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”
This quote by Eleanor Roosevelt – former First Lady to USA President Franklin D Roosevelt, is one of my favourite sayings.
One of the best things about social work is how much it develops you as a person. I truly learnt to stand up for myself when I realised what a good advocate I could be for others and then questioned why I didn’t do this for myself.
The truth is that once I started to be a better advocate for myself, I have become more confident and a better social worker. I am not new to the profession but often feel inadequate. What has changed is that now, I have developed ways to remind myself that I am valuable and that it’s not about knowing everything but developing trust in my ability to work things out.
9. Keep on learning
No matter how successful you become at setting boundaries, some people will not respect them. Below are a couple of books that have helped me to develop practical tools in this area.
- Boundary Boss: The Essential Guide to be Seen and (Finally) Live Free by psychotherapist and relationship expert Terri Cole.
- Chatter: The Voice in Our Head and How to Harness it by psychologist Ethan Kross.
Kayleigh Rose Evans is a social worker, practice educator and best interests assessor. She provides advice and reflections on social work on her YouTube channel and tweets at @KayleighREvans