In this podcast I’m going to spend a bit of time reflecting on self-care and resilience. Not because I’m an expert on it, rather because I’m not very good at it to be honest. And evidence suggests it is something that social workers can sometimes struggle with. For colleagues working in children’s services (whose jobs are a thousand times more emotionally draining than mine, I should note), it is essential to pay attention to personal wellbeing.
Kanter said in 2007 that “While social workers focus daily on caring for others, issues of self-care are too often neglected”. I would add, taking care of our needs is something we must do not instead of supporting others, but partly because we want to support others to the best of our ability. Self-care is not a self-indulgent act, but rather it is an act of self-respect. In these times of high-emotion, when many of us feel very let down by those in power and distressed by the myriad structural inequalities in our society, taking care of ourselves so we can keep caring – and fighting – for others is an act of resistance.
As I come out of a slightly tough few weeks myself, one revelation is that the really basic stuff, the stuff that can sound trite when people advise you to do it, is actually really important.
Here are some very basic rules that sound obvious but bear repeating:
- Eat something every day that is not beige. Dipping bread into anything runnier than bread whilst you hunch over your computer is not a meal. And Jaffa cakes are not one of our 5-a-day.
- No matter how much coffee you drink, drink twice as much water.
- Get dressed for work. Top and bottom half.
- At the start of the day or week, identify which things on your list are absolutely essential – make these your priority and forgive yourself if you don’t get through everything else.
- Do something that makes you out of breath every day, even if just for 10 mins. Shouting swear-words at the news doesn’t count, apparently.
Some other things that I’m finding helpful at the moment:
- Treating my news intake in the same way I’m trying to think about my food. This means consuming less news, consuming it less often, and avoiding the junk. Scrolling through Twitter endlessly is the equivalent of grazing on pick & mix sweets – but some of the sweets are actually rusty nails.
- Being thankful. I used to find those ‘gratitude diary’ things a bit cheesy. But I have been inspired by the wonderful Pooky Knightsmith, a mental health trainer and author, who logs ‘3 Good Things’ to take joy in every day, no matter how small. I’m still too self-conscious to tweet mine, but I have started writing them down every evening. It honestly makes a difference to my mindset.
- Telling my colleagues how I’m feeling. This might feel a bit uncomfortable for those in a management role (perhaps we think we should show we are in control and don’t want to ‘overshare’?)… But I think part of respecting our team mates is letting them in on how I’m feeling – it means we can contextualise each other’s’ behaviour, support each other on an emotional level – and (importantly for me) it gives them permission to call me out when I’m being a grumpy so-and-so.
- I’ve also been thinking about how not working together in a physical space means we might not be getting the daily ‘micro-affections’ that allow everything else to flow… that cheery wave in the car park, complimenting someone’s hair by the office kettle, sharing a joke before the meeting starts… all of these seemingly inconsequential interactions form a little ‘bounce mat’ on which the work stuff lands. Without these, we can fall into only interacting in a way that is entirely transactional. Making time to do the relational stuff can be the first thing to slip when we are stretched.
So, back to social work…
Harry Ferguson, in his excellent 2011 book ‘Child Protection Practice,’ notes that “Workers’ state of mind and the quality of attention they can give to children is directly related to the quality of support, care and attention they themselves receive from supervision, managers and peers…”
This really highlights the important role of supervisors in this moment. My colleague Alison Domakin recently blogged about how practice supervisors have noticed that their primary focus in supervision has shifted to one of providing containment. For supervisors and managers maintaining (and strengthen) emotional connection, giving thanks, acknowledging effort and providing containment, all make a difference – and, crucially, supervisors and managers need these things too! For more on how organisations can behave to support practitioners’ resilience, do check out the SWORD project we’ve been doing (link in page notes).
There is also something about knowing when to be vulnerable – articulated beautifully in a blog by Camden social work manager Kim Christodoulou. She talks about ‘Acknowledging the pain of isolation and harnessing inner strength…being present, actively listening and acknowledging what we do not know. Through this, she says “I have come to know the people I work with more profoundly despite the isolation. It has been painful and real. I have learnt that we can feel connected despite the separation and that we can draw resilience from being vulnerable and being present.”
For me, something that grounds me when I feel a bit overwhelmed is noticing the positives: stories from SWs and families have given me a much needed sense of hope in recent months…
Practice supervisors have described to us how some practitioners are finding it easier to build relationships with children, young people and their families. Something about the experience of COVID-19 (perhaps a blurring of rigid personal and professional demarcations when we are ‘all in this together’) seems to have allowed a more relational approach to practice to bloom.
Similarly, my colleague Susannah Bowyer together with Prof Brigid Featherstone held a series of seminars with child & family social workers to explore what impact Covid is having on practice. They found that the overriding theme was of people experiencing potential arising from shifts in practice.
- Some children in foster care saying they feel ‘more in control’
- Some families describing a sense of levelling between social workers, children, families and carers.
- Some foster carers and practitioners finding the increased levels of trust more ‘empowering’.
- Some managers noticing that an opportunity is emerging to rethink the purpose of social work practice altogether…
None of this is to suggest that things aren’t worrying, difficult and sometimes scary. They are to me. And I’m not suggesting for a moment that swapping your jaffa cake for an actual orange will fix the feelings of stress or existential dread. But being hopeful helps us to cope, and makes us more able to help others to feel hopeful. As the very wise Professor Louise Grant often says in her work on resilience “Please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others”.
Ferguson H. (2011), Child Protection Practice, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan
Kanter, J. Compassion Fatigue and Secondary Traumatization: A Second Look. Clin Soc Work J 35, 289–293 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10615-007-0125-1