Let’s start with why did you decide that Social Work was the profession for you? Go on! Write a list! I guarantee somewhere near the top will be to help and support people, to visit people, to talk to people. I bet none of you have written, to write reports, to complete paperwork, to put data into the computer…. Am I right? I suspect I am. So, are the bits you came into social work for causing you the stress…. I suspect not…. I suspect you still get a buzz out of visiting people and talking to people. So…. is it the other stuff!? I suspect it is. Interestingly the people stuff is the hard bit. I suspect you were attracted to the profession because you were good at the people bit. The other bit, the bit that’s stressing you out – managing the logistics of the case load, writing the reports, completing the data input is actually the easier bit. The bit that lots of people could do. You are unique, and the profession is fairly unique because of the absolute necessity of needing particular sorts of people to be in it. My view…. you can’t teach anyone to be a social worker, you can’t teach anyone to communicate effectively, to show empathy, to ‘be there’ with someone. That is largely an innate ability. We can teach you theory, we can show you some skills to develop, we can give you models to inform or intervene (all valuable to you as professional) but we can’t teach you to be the right sort of person.
Ok now we’ve got that out of the way we are left with you. An effective social worker who has a whole load of administrative stuff to manage that often gets in the way of doing the social work. You have to work at this bit. You have to manage it. And I hazard a guess that no one has shown you how to do it. Being organised, getting all of your ducks in a row, is not, for most, and innate ability. We have to learn it. Because if you don’t control the bureaucracy it will control. You will be at the mercy of end dates creeping up on you, meetings appearing, as if, out of nowhere that you have no time to prepare for. Sound familiar. Do you spend Sunday night wondering what is in store for you on Monday morning? Do you spend Friday afternoon wondering what you’ve forgotten to do?
This is all too familiar and I argue that it is this and not the social work part of the job (the bit you came into the profession for) that is causing you workplace stress! Am I right? Well, if I am then we just need a system. We need a system to control all of that stuff that needs to be done, that won’t do itself, but isn’t the bit that you want to do. You need a system that manages this. This system needs to be worked at. It needs to be complete. It needs to contain everything, and I mean absolutely everything, that has your attention at work. Everything that needs to be done. From things that need to be done right now to things that you might need to do at some point.
The ‘art’ of knowing what to do is twofold. You need to know everything that you need to do either right now or sometime in the future so that you can decide what not to do. Knowing what to do is actually about knowing, with confidence, what not to do.
You can’t go past David Allen’s Getting Things Done Methodology for this. I’m not going to lie. It takes a lot of work to get up and running but once up and running, and maintained, as part of your regular routine it will take all of the unknown out of your work that is the thing that leads to the most stress. Crucial here is diary management and some way of recording everything that there is to do. In your diary should be everything you are doing. Not just events like end dates of reports and meetings you need to attend but also time identified for writing reports, preparing for meetings, making phone calls, reading reports. It should all go in your diary so you get a good idea of what there is to do. I use Google Calendar and find that electronic is best here because you can easily move things around as your day and week changes. I use the ‘hour by hour’ section to put in the things I mention above – things that must happen, must be done at that time – and then I use the ‘all day event’ section to put things that I need to do, that aren’t time and day critical, that I might get done today but it won’t matter if I don’t. When I have some free time I look at these ‘all day’ things and do some of them.
Allen says we can’t plan and do at the same time. So organising my diary is done first thing on a morning and the revisited last thing on a night. This means I know what’s in there and I know what I might try to get done time permitting. What I don’t get done simply gets moved into tomorrow. Once a week I have a bigger diary planning session (it takes about 20 minutes at the end of the working week – and I leave work knowing exactly what’s what – all my ducks in a row!) and in this session I go a month ahead and work backwards planning in the time I need to hit the deadline or event that’s in my dairy. So, I leave at the end of the week knowing what there’s to do, when I’m going to do it, and what I’m not going to do.
The jobs I’m not going to do just yet live on a spreadsheet that also gets checked regularly through the week to see if there’s anything on the ‘someday, maybe’ list that has now become time sensitive.
When I’m working through my emails or my notebook everything that has some sort of output that is required by me goes into the calendar, broken down into jobs to do to get to the end result, or into the spreadsheet to be considered later.
What does this mean in terms of my work related stress. Well it doesn’t eliminate it but it significantly reduces it. Allen says your mind is not a storage device. You are not as good at remembering as you think you are. So, you need to externalise all of the things you are trying to remember into your system and then look at your system frequently to be told what to do. Once they are in your system you can forget about them because your system will remind you at the the right time. You plan and then you do – you don’t try to do them both at the same time ….you can’t. I plan on a morning and yes, it sometimes takes me a good while, maybe an hour some days, but then when I start doing I just start doing the things in my diary and in my ‘all day events’. I don’t think about what to do… I’ve done that already… I simply do …and my productivity has gone through the roof and my work related stress has been minimised.
We work in environments these days where we have to accept that we will never be caught up so we need the confidence to know what not to do and therefore, by default, what we absolutely need to do.
Stephen is interested in working with Social Workers who want to implement a work management system based on David Allan’s Getting Things Done principles. If you’re interested in giving it a try and seeing if it helps then get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org