The Guardian this morning (August 1st 2019) reports that social workers are being blamed for their own stress and burnout. You can read the article here.There are some very damning statistics in there about how social workers are feeling about this and how they are maybe being made to feel by employers. Indeed, the HCPC standards of proficiency include things about developing resilience and utilising self care (although not exactly in those words).
In the world of ‘things’ resilience is defined as the ability to resist stress (think of an iron girder), or the ability to spring back into shape. In the social work worlds resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back from the emotional trauma of practice. But I’m not convinced that is exactly all it is. The Guardian points out that there is a lack of an agreed definition or even a sense of what it exactly is but it does seem that the word resilience, more often than not, is prefixed by the word ’emotional’ as though that is the only, or primary, form of resilience.
I think resilience is multi-faceted. And I do think there is a personal responsibility element to it. I am not going to argue here against the very clear fact that workloads for social workers are too high and available resources are too low but I am going to argue that that is not the only factor. This is based on my observation that some people are coping well, some are doing ok, and some are not doing well at all, in very similar environments. So, I do think there is more to it than too many cases and not enough time. Although I am keen to stress that I think that is probably one of the more significant factors. And I think it’s worth saying here that workloads in most professions are too high – it’s not just social work…
Emphasising the personal responsibility element of resilience plays right into the hands of the dominant neo-liberal agenda endemic in the political stand point but nevertheless there are some things that can be done to enhance resilience that can only be personal. Let me explain. Resilience is not just about the ‘bounce-back’ from emotional trauma – it is about other things. We need to be physically resilient, not just for our work life but also for our life outside of work. We try and compartmentalise ‘work’ and ‘life’ in pursuit of ‘work-life balance’ when really what we should be doing is creating one balanced life that includes the things we get paid to do, the things we don’t get paid to do, and our rest and recuperation. Physical resilience helps us cope with all manner of things. This is why exercise is so important in managing stress. It has been shown that moderate levels of exercise (a brisk 20 minute walk) reduces feelings of stress (as well as reducing levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our bodies – the physical manifestation of stress). So, if you are exercising you will be more physically resilient. What you eat is equally important. The science of ‘the second brain’, as many researchers are referring to our gut, is young, but there are clear signs that what you eat has an impact on your gut biome and in turn on how you feel and how you cope with stress. How you sleep has a huge impact on your productivity and how productive you are, or are not, and therefore has a huge impact on stress. It is in this element – self care – where it is clear that personal responsibility is required in order to achieve physical resilience. No one can make you go for a walk, eat well, or go to bed at a reasonable time – only you can do that. This physical resilience has a direct impact on our emotions, our ability to manage them, and therefore on how we respond to stressful situations in all areas of our lives.
There is also another element to resilience. The ‘Organised’ element. If you have control of what you can control – if you have some sort of system that records and manages all of that for you – then when something throws your world into chaos you will have the capacity to deal with it better. David Allen (Author of Getting Things Done) talks about having a mind like water. When a rock is thrown into a still pond it creates ripple and these ripples eventually dissipate and then the pond is returned to calm. This is how your mind should be. This relies on what he calls a trusted system that contains everything that needs to be done, everything in your ‘sphere of responsibility’ as I like to call it. There is a lot of your life, at work and at home, that you can control and structure so that you can leave it safely alone while you deal with the crisis that will inevitably manifest itself at some point. By being organised and controlling what you can you will be more psychologically resilient. Research into the Getting Things Done methodology that Allen proposes has shown that by having everything you need to do, or may want to do in the future, recorded in a trusted system, feelings of overwhelm and stress are reduced. It doesn’t get the things done but it stops you trying to remember everything, gives you a sense of control and order, and frees up psychological capacity to do whatever needs doing right now.
There’s no denying that the emotional impact of working with people has an impact and that impact needs to managed somehow. By dealing with the things we can deal with ourselves, exercise, nutrition, sleep, and being organised, we can free up more of our capacity to deal with the emotions and demands of the job. I say again, I am absolutely not saying that we have no problems in social work with case loads and resources, but taking some care of yourself and having a system to be organised have been shown to help. Fact.
So, the government have some responsibility in terms of funding, the regulator has some responsibility in terms of advocating for the profession, senior managers in local authorities have a responsibility to engage in the local political agenda around funding and resources, but you also have a role in making sure you are ready for the task. You can make a contribution, you can make a difference. Why would you not want to look after you!? Why would you not want to do at least something? There is clear evidence it helps. It won’t make the problem go away but it might help you manage some of the fall out. You are too important to leave it to others. That’s the personal responsibility bit. That’s why you need to do something because you are too important not too.
Self care is an essential, not a luxury in any profession.