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Social work is a high-stress job – support from peers is invaluable

Posted on 2/08/2016 by


As part of an inner-city team, poor structuring and overwork drove me to tears. Now, I’m helping to provide support to newly qualified social workers

My first job after qualification was in a long-term complex team outside London. I was well-guided and educated as I took my first social work steps. However, when I moved to an inner-London borough a year later, things were somewhat different.

The demand on our team felt incredibly high and our management team was clearly very strained. I ended up having three supervision meetings in seven months when I had been having them fortnightly. Where the team I had been in was experienced, this team was largely recently qualified.

The pressure went up as the structure weakened with fewer people available for guidance. Clarity quickly declined. I suppose I didn’t do everything I should have done – I didn’t escalate, I didn’t document my concerns and I wasn’t vocal enough in supervision. Instead, my caseload, and my anxiety, grew.

The defining moment was standing up in front of all my colleagues and just bursting into tears. I was about 18 months qualified, and I had three safeguarding cases on a Friday evening. It wasn’t the first time I felt like I couldn’t cope, but it was the worst. There was so much going on. I was overwhelmed – I felt so unsupported, and I couldn’t see how to prioritise any more. I also couldn’t understand how this team was so different to my last.

One of the managers hurried me in to a side room, gave me a packet of tissues, made me a cup of tea (the social work fix for all things) and left me with a fellow social worker.

While I sat there blubbing with this colleague who I knew very little at the time, her experience offered me the most encouragement. It strengthened what I already thought – that it’s frequently our peers who provide the greatest comfort in tough times.

Afterwards, I emailed my service manager. Going above your direct line manager can be sensitive, and I wouldn’t always recommend it, but in this case I knew for anyone to listen I had to escalate. I wanted to stay with the same local authority but knew I wouldn’t manage in that team with the structure as it was.

She suggested I tried a different team, and I transitioned over to a smaller, well-managed hospital team. Having support, clear direction, constant case discussions and a great team allowed me to enjoy my job once again and the stress subsided. I began to master my time management and organisation skills, putting aside small 15-30 minute slots each week for admin. As a result, I worked much more efficiently. Same borough, but a totally different operation.

They had a tough workload and complex cases, but it was their strong structure and internal support which helped so much.

It was at that point that I started to invest much more of myself into developing social work networking group iamsocialwork as a way for social care professionals to reach out and get advice and support.

Five years on and 12 events later, it’s a very different story. I’ve witnessed the challenges first-hand – the chaos surrounding the running of our services, the massive demand, the pressure as you struggle for every inch of time – I’ve seen the strain from my colleagues who reach out for support, not knowing where to turn. I’ve received endless streams of emails from people wanting to walk out through sheer exhaustion and lack of support, just turning to whoever they can for some advice, perhaps reassurance.

But I’ve also seen incredible leadership, I’ve been managed and supported by some inspiring people, and watched my colleagues (and now great friends) progress through this career into senior practitioners, fully engaged and driven to support others in the same way they were guided.

These observations made me desperately want to try to grow iamsocialwork, in order to extend stronger peer networks and solid learning, regardless of location or the sector people work in. It’s a bigger network of people to call on and share stories with.

I’ve always run iamsocialwork on my own while working full-time, which has tested my ability to manage and motivate myself at times. I still manage the operation, but I now have two inspiring chief executives on hand for guidance when needed, as well as a full-time intern for three months. Together, we’re focusing on delivering my vision of a national campaign of eight events in seven locations across two weeks in September 2016: iamsocialwork’s SUPER:vision Tour.

I want to dedicate what I do to helping those in the same position I was in five years ago, to ease the struggles and challenges of others. There is a call for greater guidance and confidence in this career – an understanding of wider social and political landscapes.

So much is developing all the time, which brings nerves, not confidence. By getting better at networking and learning, we can increase clarity about how to actually do the practical side of this job as well as implement emotional support and develop a robust network that inspires and motivates each other.



Source: The Guardian