Yes, self-care is important, but so is employee care
You’ve heard myself and others bang on about it many a time but, for the sake of setting the tone, let’s begin by saying it all once again:
“Self-care is essential in Social Work”
“You can’t keep running on empty”
“Self-care is not selfish”
“You can’t pour from an empty cup”
The message is obvious, the research is clear and those of us out there actually doing this job, or training to be Social Workers, know in our hearts just how important self-care is.
But let’s be honest… that doesn’t make it any easier to accomplish, does it?
Promising myself that I’ll leave work at 5pm doesn’t made my to-do list any shorter.
Taking all my annual leave, flexi and lieu time won’t reduce my caseload.
Making plans with friends after work doesn’t add any extra hours to my day.
Social Workers don’t forget to practise self-care because we’re stupid, it’s because our employers force self-sacrificing working conditions upon us
It’s not as if Social Workers want to burn out after eight years, work ourselves into the ground or develop poor mental health because of toxic working environments.
We don’t ask for working conditions that dictate we must regularly work late simply to do the very basic aspects of our jobs- visiting children, typing up case notes and writing reports.
There’s not an international epidemic of self-sabotaging conditions that lead Social Workers to work harder and longer than we are capable of sustaining.
We work this way because we must, not because we choose to
As a Newly Qualified Social Worker, I held a caseload of 46. I’d like to say it was because I was confident in my work and coping well. I’d also like to say that my story was an anomaly. But I’m not going to lie to you so I won’t say either of those things.
I had a dangerously high caseload because it was a necessity in the team I worked in: several agency workers had left without notice, a fellow Newly-Qualified Social Worker broke down and burned out after only four months on the job and we had a scarily high number of unallocated cases.
How on earth was I meant to practise self-care in such conditions?
But my situation wasn’t particularly unique and I certainly wasn’t special.
High caseloads and even higher pressures continue to run rife throughout Social Work across the world
‘Mindfulness’- there’s a word that many of you will have come across in recent years and had it held up before you as a solution to all your anxieties about work and life. Some of you may even have been as lucky as I was and been extended an offer to attend an hour-long session on how being mindful can make you a happier worker.
That session promised me that being ‘mindful’ was the solution to my self-care needs and would help me learn to live in the moment, to stop worrying about the past that was out of my control and the future that was yet to pass.
But, as good as that all sounds, there’s a slight problem when it comes to Social Work: the foundation of our profession is based on constantly reflecting on the past and the output of our work is geared towards helping people secure a better future for themselves.
Add to that a media which constantly blames Social Workers for the death of children because we failed to predict the future, and a never-ending list of looming deadlines, and it’s clear to see that being ‘mindful’ is not a solution to all our woes.
And therein lies the crux of this issue:
Our employers are paying lip-service to self-care by putting on tokenistic training courses and having a tiny part of supervision devoted to a quick question about how well we’re coping at work
Now I’m not saying self-care isn’t important, and it is essential we all keep standing up for ourselves in the workplace, but without the issues being acknowledged by our Government and our employers we are doomed to fail.
We’ve already seen how, when tragedies happen in our work, it is most often the frontline Social Worker who is hung out to dry and blamed for failing to protect. The risk of continuing to push hard on self-care, with our employers support this with tokenistic courses that place the onus of employee care onto workers, is that it allows those with the power to make real change off the hook.
We’ve already seen how our professional regulators blame Social Workers for not being open about how much they’re struggling.
We’re on the cusp of seeing Social Work teams told they are not ‘innovative’ enough if they have too many children in Child Protection plans.
The next logical step is to tell burnt out Social Workers that they could have staved off their mental illnesses had they only practised better self-care.
We must not let this happen.
Take care of yourselves my friends, but demand that you are taken care of by others too.