How to stand up for yourself in social work

Social work is focused on empowerment. But what about when social workers feel disempowered? Kayleigh Rose Evans sets out some tried and tested techniques you can use to maximise wellbeing and confidence

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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.

Kayleigh Rose Evans © KRE

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.

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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.

Tirachard Kumtanom © Pexels

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.

Madison Inouye © Pexels

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.

Ivan Bertolazzi © Pexels

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.

Recommended reading

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 

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26 Responses to How to stand up for yourself in social work

  1. Charlotte September 9, 2021 at 1:47 pm #

    Any tips on how to cope with the anxiety our sincerely held beliefs might be reframed as a fitness to practice concern by SWE? How can we best avoid catastrophising the negative stigma of an FtP investigation and its potential impact on our employability? Thank you.

  2. Despondent September 9, 2021 at 2:39 pm #

    I constantly feel angry and dejected that having asked several times what BASW did to support my fellow black social work colleagues when their white managers witheld PPE from them, there has been no response. It feels horrible that black social workers are so marginalised that even a professional association doesn’t regard us worthy of engagement. I’ve lost confidence in my practice, I feel tearful, sad and anxious all the time. I don’t know where I would get support from if I was victimised so I can’t escape the resentment I feel. My family have noticed that I am not my usual self and I worry about my impact on them too. What can I do to get pass my feelings of worthlessness and abandonment? I appreciate there is a lot to unpack here but I want to have hope that having opened a dialogue for sharing there will be support forthcoming too.

    • FSH September 9, 2021 at 5:09 pm #

      This is a matter for equality and discrimination therefore could be followed up through your company internal processes. It was well publicised that those from global majority communities were more vulnerable if they contracted Covid. We had a clear plan in our company which prioritised high risk groups in our work force. This should have been the case for your workplace.

      • Eleanor September 10, 2021 at 2:39 pm #

        FSH, that doesn’t address the point about why having highlighted discrimination towards black social workers BASW refuses to engage when asked what they did about it. If anything. This is not a trivial matter. They claim to represent 20,000 or more social workers . They also claim to be a proactively anti-racist professional association. Like many black social.workers I also experience constant anxiety that at any moment I will be judged to have erred with only my colleagues supporting me. All I can say to you Despondent is that if you were in my team, we would love you and support you. You are not alone.

    • Adele Boyd September 10, 2021 at 6:31 pm #

      Really disappointed you didn’t get support from BASW, did you contact the A&R department?

    • Pearlene Webb September 11, 2021 at 10:34 am #

      I feel your pain and my advice is don’t internalise the lack of response, they don’t know how to answer you because they don’t have anything positive to say about it. Work on your own self care and choose your battles. Fight for yourself because you deserve it. Seek support from your close friends people you know you can trust.

  3. Naomi September 9, 2021 at 4:38 pm #

    I wish my younger self had been able to read this as it has taken me trial and error to achieve what you are suggesting and those suggestions work.

  4. SMG September 9, 2021 at 8:40 pm #

    Sad sad sad. The white managers involved needs to reflect back on social work values. Not all managers are that way though. They should understand their role.

  5. Oyela September 9, 2021 at 8:58 pm #

    I echo the above email. My work was recently terminated under probation period but while on the ASYE program. The whole process caught me unaware as I had just received a 2 months probation extension a day before. Upto now, I do not know what led to the sudden termination of my work. I have tried and still trying to get some answers but the response does not explain the exact reason. I tried contacting both HR, and Basw over the phone several times, and left messages on several occasions but no one has gotten back to me or picks up the phone. My concern is how l move on not knowing the exact reason why my employment was termite. I thought the Asye period was a learning process for a year not 6 months. I would very much appreciate if someone can support me to get some answers from the advanced social worker who was my mentor. I am a BME newly qualified social worker. Please help me as I am, I am willing to explain and answer any further questions you may have regarding my experience. I just want the truth of what happened to be transparent. Thank you.

  6. May September 9, 2021 at 11:07 pm #

    I wonder if joining a union such as GMB as well as considering some counselling would be helpful. Would having a support network from a Black Workers Network be helpful to you?

  7. Social worker September 10, 2021 at 7:06 am #

    It is a fact and should be taught at university that if you challenge panel decisions that are based on finances and actively put children at risk (heaven forbid you want children to be safe) or even email council colleagues in education because someone said a school pta was removed by an academy trust…or even have an opinion about politics – in the sense that the tory’s have systematically destroyed social care and the nhs and therefore many lives (130000 austerity related deaths not to mention COVID tragedies) and there are no youth clubs and things for teenagers to do other than get involved in county lines, these observations are not welcome to service leads and directors. Fact.
    What is most frustrating is that some easy solutions to help kids are made so tough. Contextual safeguarding – there are no kids at risk in a council office. Social worker must be based in schools, youth clubs, family centres and spend a small percentage of time in the office. The culture of office work is rubbish. It is as therapeutic and bland to social workers as it must be for people using our services. Anyway – like many I take great pleasure in helping, being there at the right place and time is essential and that would help my wellbeing too. I would even like to go with police on there visits because so often social workers moan about what police do and teachers but do not go and help…hypocritical much!

    Peace and love.

  8. Alec Fraher September 10, 2021 at 10:12 am #

    this reads like a recipe but for what? disaster, maybe? oops sorry no drama’s allowed. except the dramaturgical model is, perhaps, helpful.

    the not in the issues facing social work include working out the industries path dependency post Brexit.

    LASSA, like all, yes all, the NHS legislation has since the 1970s been dependent on its strategic push and pull from the European Union. Most notably advanced within LOCGOV under the guise of catchy names. Like Supporting People, Valuing People, and Personalisation. I say guise because what they are properly known as is Category Sourcing Programmes.

    And now that we’ve got a sense of the market shape and size everything remains open to and subject to competitive process.

    Ask why are KPMG leading the debate on a return to community social work. Ask why the sponsors of the awards for excellence are equity backed. Ask why the leadership of the industry are also sole traders.

    The path dependency for social work, like the NHS, is now rooted in the UK/US trade agreements.

    Spelling out to social workers what social work is and how to do it is part of the picture. But this isn’t CPD its selling. It’s also the surest way to fundamentally undermine confidence too.

    If social work is in crisis then sure using grounding and stabilisation approaches has some merit. But let’s not forget some basic learning highlights from parallel planning and supervisory arrangements like Herons Six Categories of Intervention. The most important of which to identify is a corrupt intervention.

    There is a lot of psychobabble about and its seductive. So remember that SOLACE and the leadership of BASW knew, in 2007,that the sector had an uncomfortable likeness to the construction industry.

    Social Work is, I am reliably told, a complex adaptive system. But let’s not forget that any good systems thinker would also tell you that, actually systems do not exist and all models are wrong.

    People in poor housing living on starvation incomes are real.

    It may be that LASSA has run it’s course. LOCGOV has, for an age, tried to Shift the Burden of its responsibilities and that’s because there is a fundamental conflicts of interests.

    Put simply, Councils cause the conditions that create harm and want shut of the damage to their reputation.

    Social workers are out on a limb because we have put them there. It is by design. The post Brexit impact has yet to be understood and seen for what it is and the UK/US trade agreements will include both the NHS and Social Work..

    It’s been said that the cost to the UK is £800m a week now. So anything that boosts GDP is going to be promoted and at any cost to values. In 2009 I described the procurement and commissioning of services to all vulnerable populations as making Enron look like a walk in the park.

    For those interested in a critical reading of all of this then I would suggest that Complex Society: In the Middle of the Middle World by Bojan Radej and Mojca Golobic (2021) is a useful start to add theory to practice.

  9. Toyin Adenugba-Okpaje September 10, 2021 at 2:50 pm #

    Thanks for this article, the tips are quite helpful.

  10. Sandra September 11, 2021 at 8:54 am #

    Excellent tips to help manage the stress and pressures of social work. Kayleigh sharing her own experiences makes it more personally relateable.

  11. Peter September 11, 2021 at 10:22 am #

    This is a timely reminder that social workers hurt too. The emotions of fear, guilt, inadequacy, failure and the like are universal in social work. Yes self care is paramount, but our turmoil is rooted in a rotten management blame culture given strength by a Regulator that couldn’t be further away from our practice. BASW is not much better distracted as it seems to be by a visceral antipathy towards Unison and hamstrung and compromised by its place in the social work Establishment. That it is shaped by Independent social workers is its impotence. So yes, Ms Evans gives us the heads up that it’s not weakness to acknowledge the importance of self care. But that’s a message for our managers too. Perhaps principle to them. Unless they acknowledge our needs, unless supervision starts from a nurture not to punish base, unless our Regulator and self defined professional association actually hear us and act and change the cultures we work in, no amount of self care and mutual twitter affirmation can ever be enough for an emotionally healthy social work. Thank you for starting from empathy but Jordan Peterson is not for me.

  12. Natalie September 13, 2021 at 9:41 am #

    Peter is spot on. Change the authoritarian structures that give permission for managers to bully and tyranise practitioners. Shape a regulatory system that actually understands social work cultures and social workers. Democratise the self defined professional association so it’s accountable to members and can claim to speak for the profession rather than the self perpetuating clan. Introduce proper analytical and intellectually challenging education that relies on universal truths rather than personal narratives. Do these and we can have the empowering and nurturing work environments that can allow us to breathe and look after our wellbeing. I am a well adjusted, self critical, world aware and reasonably content person out of work but on my guard social worker at work. Without vigilance we are vulnerable and open to victimisation at work. No amount of personal care can compensate for the toxic fault hunting undermining that passes for supervision. At least in my circle of social workers working in adult and children services. It’s the structures that crush our spirit, not an inner voice that seeds doubt and the newly fashionable ‘imposter syndrome’. There is value in what Ms Evans suggests but the message should be for managers and directors. Unless their mindset changes, we can’t be content. I am afraid like Peter, I also question the prominence given to Jordan Petersen in a social work article. By all means rely on different voices to make a point but not so uncritically. I am disappointed that he is included in a discourse about self care and nurturing when he is so dismissive of the anti-oppressive cultures we as social workers embrace.

  13. Not a manager September 13, 2021 at 5:51 pm #

    In my world of permanent unpaid overtime, at times dangerously unmanageable work loads, bad diet, poor sleep, anxiety about how to avoid a disciplinary, desperately trying to hide being on anti-depressants and fear of being up before SWE for FtP allegations, getting through a long day and still having a job to return to counts as self care.

  14. Chantelle September 14, 2021 at 8:43 am #

    Astonishing that there is no mention of how racism impacts on perceptions and reactions. A white social worker acknowledging anxiety elicits sympathy and perhaps tea and cake. A black social worker daring to express feeling anxious is regarded with suspicion that they are not up to the task, their competence ccomes under scrutinity, their suitability for social work is questioned. Rates of disciplinaries and FtP referrals show us that. Great that some can have agency, choice and autonomy. Rest of us just grind on without the privilege.

  15. Olu September 14, 2021 at 9:51 am #

    Happy for Kayleigh Evans that she has the support and fortitude to navigate a caring space for herself. No sympathy, no “you are a great social worker”, no “go home and recuperate”, no “all we can do is our best” affirmation from my manager. “Maybe social work is not for you” was the response when I said I was struggling and anxious about visiting an aggressive and abusive family. But then I am not white or young or British. The elephant is “people like us” values and endemic racism and ageism. No amount of personal growth compensates for that.

  16. Alison September 14, 2021 at 11:40 am #

    Kayleigh being white does not invalidate the excellent advice she has given. I don’t get why saying being kind to yourself has to be racialised.

  17. Alex September 14, 2021 at 8:16 pm #

    Maybe because black workers don’t have the support of their managers to be kind to themselves? Maybe because black colleagues here told us about how they have been treated compared to Kayleigh? Maybe because everything in social work is “racialised”? Maybe because the list of demoralised black workers is long? Maybe because social work is institutionally racist? Maybe because therapy is not readily available to black workers through their employers? Maybe because black workers are not heard?

  18. Samm September 17, 2021 at 9:52 am #

    Well I feel miserable because I have zero autonomy to practice effectively. I feel miserable that my bosses have no shame in encouraging me to use foodbanks to feed “service users.” I feel miserable that racism and sexism gets reframed as banter when challenged. I feel miserable that most of what I do as a social worker makes little to no difference to the material circumstances of people. I feel miserable that expressing anything vaguely ‘political’ gets ridiculed and marginalised. I feel miserable that my competence is accounted for by a Regulator that understands only the bureaucracy of social work. I feel miserable that a self defining professional association adds next to no meaning to my practice. I feel miserable that social work education sucks the creativity out of students and ill prepares them to realities of work. I feel miserable that resilience has become a tool to oppress and bully us into accepting poor conditions and poor supervision. I feel miserable that a tweet, a podcast, a blog is all that passes for intellectually diverse discourse now. I feel miserable that social workers act like overexcited toddlers by an MBE. I feel miserable that social workers chase orthodoxies that give them career enhancing profiles while trampling over their oft bellowed ‘passion’ for anti-oppressive practice. I feel miserable that social work has become a parody self-help Hallmark card platitudes while those of us who still believe in a common struggle for a just and empowering social work are asked to consider whether a “tankie” is suited to social work. I feel miserable that social work now plays out the tropes of a rejected American romcom about shiny happy people who are slightly upset by their inner self doubt but hey presto all is well when the therapists come to heal.

    • Neil September 17, 2021 at 11:17 pm #

      I wish you were in my team Samm.

  19. Ian September 17, 2021 at 11:33 am #

    Sonia Appleby stood up for children and for safe ethical practice. She was hounded for standing up. What protection I as a newbie social worker have if I asked for compassion from my manager? I suspect not being a YouTuber with a BASW profile I would be an ex-probationer. Kayleigh makes excellent points as it happens but sadly in my world the structures and personalities I have to serve don’t share them. Get the job done whatever the personal cost is not the mentality that supports standing up for ourselves.

  20. Keith September 18, 2021 at 10:35 am #

    Sorry I don’t buy any of this victim blaming psychotherapy. I am actually angry at the barely disguised victim blaming parading as self care tips. We are unhappy and burdened at work not because we haven’t worked out how to love and care for ourselves. We are demoralised by vacancies, lack of resources, having to go hundreds of miles to find placements, by violence experiences as social workers and witnessing it on people we serve, we are upset by poverty, by lack of imagination, by bureaucracy, by sexist and racist managers, by budget driven decision making, by all the things Samm articulates so well. We don’t need therapy as a substitute tool rather than resources to do a fullfilling job. I am angry that rather than embrace their own craft, social workers crave validation as psychologists. I don’t want to be a psychologist, I don’t want to.be a psychotherapist, I don’t want to be the shadow of another profession. I am proud to be a social worker. I am proud that I have tried to be a true advocate for people I work alongside of, that I engage I the communities I work in. I am proud that when faced with crises social workers step up while therapists stare intently at their diaries. I am proud that we do rather than worship the story telling of the “how does it feeI” reframers. I am proud that I have held on to my values in 34 years of practice. Be a social worker and let that be enough I say. My inner voice is the song of the Chiffchaff.

  21. Harri September 20, 2021 at 9:23 am #

    I say, Community Care give Samm and Keith a regular slot. “Social workers act like overexcited toddlers by an MBE”. “I am proud that when faced with crises social workers step up while therapists stare intently at their diaries.” That makes me prouder to be a self affirming social worker and that I am part of a validating comradeship than the dodgy liberterianism of Jordan Peterson.

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