By Richard Devine, Social Worker for Bath and North East Somerset Council
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Being a children’s social worker can be hugely rewarding but can also be emotionally demanding, challenging and stressful. The complex and difficult nature of children’s social work is evidenced by the high rates of burnout and a transient workforce, with most social workers not lasting more than a few years. Excessively high self-expectations and a hyper-critical stance towards oneself when those expectations are not met can compound the intense and unrelenting demands of the role
Note: Despite the title of this blog, I can’t claim to have been a resilient social worker, and I certainly didn’t acquire it as a fixed trait. Perhaps, I should have called this blog ‘Keeping afloat (just!)’. Like a boat half subsumed by water, but still hanging in there.
There were many times when I felt utterly overwhelmed, barely staying afloat, and concerned about the impact the job was having on my emotional well being and relationships.
However, I was passionate about making a positive difference for children and understood early that long-term relationships are critical in making a difference. I also knew the system was unlikely to change. I was therefore highly motivated to find ways to remain in practice and endeavour to provide high-quality social work. These are some of the ideas that aided my ability to work in long term child protection social work for several years.
- Time management
- Ruthless pragmatism
- Reframing stress
- You are only ever as good as those around you
- Liberation and helping families
Poor impulse control, easily activated fear system motivating avoidance of difficult tasks, and the inability to organise and structure my time according to a set of priorities are all issues that I struggled with (and shhhh, don’t tell anyone – but still do!).
It soon became apparent that if I were to be effective for the children and families I worked for, I would need to address these flaws and improve my capacity to manage time and complete various pieces of work within tight timescales. Therefore, I have spent considerable time learning how to manage time! The two most influential ideas I have learned about are the four quadrants and time blocking.
The four quadrants
Covey (1989: 151) makes a helpful distinction between important and urgent. He says ‘urgent matters are usually visible. They press on us; they insist on action. They’re often popular with others…And often they are pleasant, easy, fun to do. But so often they are unimportant!’ whereas important matters ‘has to do with results…it contributes to your mission, your values, your high priority goals’ and ‘require more initiative, more proactivity’
The challenge, especially as a newly qualified social worker, is figuring out what is important versus not important; it can sometimes feel as if everything is important. You have to balance the expectations and demands that derive from an electronic system plagued with built-in timelines and tasks from your manager, from the families you work for, requests from other professionals, as well as undertaking the work you consider to be of value. You can’t do it all. Therefore, you have to assimilate all these expectations and tasks and situate them into a hierarchy of importance to take action on the tasks that matter.
In my experience, the essential activities from the perspective of impacting the lives of children and families are undertaking chronologies, writing assessments, developing care plans, and direct work with children and families. In my opinion, all of these activities are mostly quadrant 2 activities (not urgent, important). As much as possible, you want to diarise your calendar so that these activities remain in quadrant 2 and avoid leaving it too late until they are in quadrant 1 (urgent, important). It is an eternal struggle, partly because the unpredictable nature of child protection repeatedly forces you to address emerging issues. This places you in quadrant 1 (urgent, important), but it is nonetheless still worth pursuing. You either want to be working on what matters or what cannot be avoided.
Therefore, the aim of using this category system is to spend as much time as practically possible in quadrant 2 (not urgent, important), whilst recognising that inevitably you will spend a good amount of time in quadrant 1 (urgent, important).
You want to avoid all activities that fall into quadrant 3 (urgent, not important) and 4 (not urgent, not important) where possible. In my opinion, the vast majority of e-mail exchange as a social worker is quadrant 3 or 4 material, albeit disguised as quadrant 1 material. I would go so far as saying that e-mails are one of, if not the major source of distraction and time wasted. Part of their allure, for me anyhow, is that they make me feel wanted/needed, and with relatively little effort, especially compared to important tasks, I can write an e-mail or reply to one, and this makes me ‘feel’ productive. One thing I noticed is when I have returned from annual leave after 2 weeks and opened my inbox to 100’s of e-mails, I have found at least 90% of them to be of no use. E-mail is ubiquitous, though and thus cannot be avoided; therefore, the strategy I employ is to block a segment of time each day to read and reply to e-mails for 30 minutes.
This idea is from Cal Newport (his podcast is one of my current favourites), which I learned from his book Deep Work (2016). The basic premise of this idea is that you schedule every minute of your workweek. Once I had completed my to-do list and evaluated the different tasks by urgency and importance, I would time-block my week using my calendar. Each day of the week would look like this:
8-10.30am: Write Case Conference Report
10.30am – 11am: Travel
11am – 12noon: Core Group
12noon – 12.30pm: Travel
12.30 – 1pm: E-mails
1pm – 4pm: Chronology writing
4pm – 5pm: Visit to family
The advantage of this method is that my activities throughout the day and week are determined by what I have identified as important, rather than being directed by less demanding, more exciting, but ultimately less productive activities.
Newport (2016) makes the distinction between shallow work and deep work. Shallow work activities don’t require a lot of concentration and can be done efficiently (phone calls, e-mails, referral forms, etc.). Deep work is impactful but requires high-level concentration (reports, chronology, etc.).
When I block out time, for example to write a case conference report or a chronology, it is imperative that I avoid all distractions because even brief distractions are costly. Each time you reply quickly to an e-mail, take a phone call, speak to a colleague, it can take up to 20-30 minutes to get back into the activity you were engaged in. It is not the distraction itself that is costly, rather the residual effects caused by the distraction. To avoid this, I will turn off e-mail notifications (and social media notifications on my phone!), ask administration workers to field incoming calls, or don’t answer them and call back afterwards. If necessary, I will find somewhere quiet to work where I won’t get distracted.
I have never had a week where I executed 100% the plan I developed. You have to adapt to urgent issues, which can disrupt the timetable. When this happens, I rearrange my timetable and continue. I suspect I completed 70%-80% of my schedule in a typical week, but I still got a substantial more done than I would without the schedule. As the old adage goes, failing to plan is planning to fail.
‘Stress is caused by being here but wanting to be there or being in the present and wanting to be in the future’Eckhart Tolle
Here are a couple of examples of this: When I was a student social worker, I wanted to be a qualified social worker. When I was qualified I was working with children subject to child in need plans, but wanted to be like my experienced colleagues working with children subject to child protection plans. Soon after I was a social worker, I wanted to be a senior social worker.
On a more day to day basis, if I am working on a report due on Thursday and its Tuesday, I want it to be Friday, so I don’t have to be concerned with the report. When Friday arrives, I want it to be the weekend.
The problem is that when the moment I previously desired arrives, then a new situation or desire emerges. Once again, I am caught up thinking about a moment in the future that promises, finally, to offer me contentment and freedom from anxiety. According to Tolle (1999), a great deal of psychological distress is self-generated as a consequence of this type of thinking and derives from dissatisfaction with the present moment.
Therefore, I try to be present. It sounds simple enough but deceptively challenging to achieve.
If I have 3 hours blocked out to write a report, then I permit myself to enjoy the opportunity to spend 3 hours working on a designated piece of work. If I have to drive 2 hours to see a young person, instead of spending 2 hours caught up in my anxious thoughts about what I could be doing and what I need to be doing, I allow myself to enjoy the car journey. When I am writing a report or driving to a visit, there is nothing else I can do.
There is no utility in allowing thoughts and feelings to create a high level of anxiety when there is no opportunity to act upon them.
‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference’
In 7 Habits for Highly Successful People, Stephen Covey (2004: 82, 83) has described this in a practically helpful way as the ‘circle of concern’ and the ‘circle of influence’. If you imagine two circles, one in front of the other. The outer circle is the ‘circle of concern’; this constitutes all your concerns that you have no control over. If you exert your time and energy in attempting to change that which you have little control over, then the inner circle, the ‘circle of influence’, retracts and shrinks. In other words, you decrease your ability to deal with that which you may have some influence over. On the other hand, if you can effectively discern what you have no control over, you can focus your time and energy on what you do. Consequently, your ‘circle of influence expands, and you will create more control, agency, and leverage to make a difference.
As a social worker, it soon becomes easy to identify the flaws and limitations of the system in which we operate. Although I was acutely aware of the system’s difficulties, not least the highly procedural and bureaucratic nature of the work that leaves little room to spend time with children and families, I remain intensely focused on the areas in which I did have influence. I would limit the amount I would allow myself to engage in negative talk, especially during team meetings, and only raise a problem if I could identify a realistic solution.
I realise, however, that there is a balance to be struck. As pointed out by Maria Popova, ‘Critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety (Solnit 2016: xi/ii cited Featherstone et al 2018, 25).
A few years ago, I watched this Tedtalk called ‘How to make stress your friend’ by Kelly McGonigal. She argued that stress, or the physiological experience of stress, can be reframed. Typically, we assume that the bodily signs of stress (anxiety, faster breathing, increased heart rate, etc) are inherently negative and evidence that we aren’t coping. However, suppose we took the same bodily signs to mean that your body is energised to act and complete a task? According to Kelly, when people can make this cognitive perspective switch, they are less stressed out, less anxious, and more confident.
In addition, when you experience stress, neuro-hormones are released that cause you to seek out social support. McGonigal argued that your stress response system wants you to elicit support to deal with it, so the release of these hormones propels you to reach out to others who can help. I think this is why you can develop highly supportive and close relationships in child protection teams.
At the 12 minute point, Kelly points out:
‘When you choose to view your stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage. And when you choose to connect with others under stress, you can create resilience. Now I wouldn’t necessarily ask for more stressful experiences in my life, but this science has given me a whole new appreciation for stress. Stress gives us access to our hearts. The compassionate heart that finds joy and meaning in connecting with others, and yes, your pounding physical heart, working so hard to give you strength and energy. And when you choose to view stress in this way, you’re not just getting better at stress, you’re actually making a pretty profound statement. You’re saying that you can trust yourself to handle life’s challenges. And you’re remembering that you don’t have to face them alone’.
In addition, stress is also a signal that you are operating on the periphery of your zone of proximal development. You might feel stressed by attending a child protection case conference for the first time. Or you are writing a court statement you haven’t completed before. In these instances, you are extending yourself and operating in a way that takes you out of your comfort zone. It can, therefore, be a sign of learning and growth.
To be continued…(Part 2 will be shared next week – sign up to receive directly)
By Richard Devine (18.03.22)
2 thoughts on “How to be a Resilient Social Worker and Flourish in a Complex, Emotionally Demanding and Stressful Role (Part 1)”
Brilliant piece of writing as always Rich Elly x