‘How to leave home visits on time – and when not to’

A social worker details how she learned to set boundaries when visiting families so that she could retain a work-life balance

social worker speaking to two teenagers during a visit

by Elena Nicolaou

My visits to families are often the most enjoyable part of my week.

I like the listening, relationship-building, direct work and insight that comes from home visits.

I do not, however, like timescales (who does?!), but understand the necessity of them for safeguarding. In my current role, I have the standard fortnightly child protection visits, and child in need visits every 20 days.

The difficulty I often find is trying to fit everything I need to discuss with the family into one visit. I find myself thinking, ‘How have four weeks gone by already?’, and, ‘How has my list of things to address doubled?’.

Leaving on time

Elena Nicolaou

Pictured: Elena Nicolaou

I try to create plans, but my busy reality means I often end up planning just before a visit or on my way there, if at all. The reasons behind this are the usual suspects – too many meetings, too much admin, no admin staff to help with the admin, too many emails etc.

Another problem is that the time allocated never seems like enough. I often schedule an hour for my visits and struggle to get out of the door.

Sometimes, the families have something to do and they’re trying to rush me, but this is definitely in the minority. They usually have a lot to say and it’s quite a skill to leave on time, and even get there on time (I’m late 95% of the time).

It’s a balancing act. I’m usually honest that I have another visit or meeting to get to and state this openly.  But if I’m making progress on a crucial discussion or a child is upset, I try to stay and then leave when things are more settled.

I had an occasion recently, though, when this wasn’t possible. I felt so awful knowing that a child was crying and I couldn’t stay to comfort them, but it was the end of the day and I had to pick up a family member.

Social workers and counsellors

I’ve been reflecting on the parallels with therapists and counsellors. With every therapist I have ever worked with, the sessions always end on time, without fail.

Naturally, they don’t have the same safeguarding duties as social workers, but I think we can learn from the techniques they use. These include, when appropriate, referencing time after the midway point, summarising key points near the close of the session and making references to the next meeting.

Much like therapists, we need to feel comfortable leaving sessions that aren’t ‘finished’ in uncomfortable places or with issues left unresolved.

Of course, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m advocating for leaving a family during a crisis, where the police are about to be called. Safety is paramount.

But I do think families need to have realistic expectations of what social workers can do during their working hours. Part of this, for me, is understanding the pressures social workers are under.

This is not a topic that warrants taking up precious time during a home visit. But being clear with families about your schedule can help.

Setting boundaries

notebook with the written note "setting boundaries"

Photo by AdobeStock/stanciuc

I tend to explain working hours, provide the emergency duty team number and mention my work phone not being turned on 24/7. I have not had any families who did not understand this.

I do offer flexibility, though, and if families can only see me at 6pm because of work or other commitments, then I comply. I take the time back on another day.

Good outcomes for families are what we want, and time is key to achieving that; time to advocate, to make referrals, to listen and to do reflective work with them.

As social workers, we are part of a wider network of professional support that they receive. We need to understand what our role is, and isn’t, what we can do in our home visits and what needs to be done by universal services – and by families themselves.

Recently, during  a home visit, I had to set a firm boundary with a teenager with additional needs (autism spectrum), who had kept repeating questions we had discussed multiple times.

After reminding him of our previous conversation and the actions we had agreed on, I then explained that I had to leave due to another appointment. His younger sibling also wanted to chat and play, which would have been an enjoyable interlude, but not a possible one at that time.

In another instance, I had an office visit scheduled with a mother to complete important paperwork and discuss updates on care planning and interventions for her child, who had become looked after.

We had an hour and a half scheduled in but were coming to the end of the session and had not managed to complete all the paperwork. So, instead of carrying on as I might have done when I was newly qualified, I booked another appointment.

Making compromises, thinking creatively and being able to ask for what is needed is essential. We are social workers, but we also need to respect our own time boundaries and that seek that elusive work/life balance.

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2 Responses to ‘How to leave home visits on time – and when not to’

  1. Carline August 21, 2023 at 8:08 pm #

    This is unfortunately a very accurate account of Social Work and it has not changed much over the years.
    Learning to make decisions such as when to leave requires addresing safe uncertainty.
    This account is written with integrity and I welcome hearing more about the ‘truth of the matter’

    • Elena August 22, 2023 at 11:23 pm #

      Thanks Carline. I’ve been reflecting a lot on safe uncertainty recently given some high risk work.
      Absolutely, the truths must be told.