“Social work is in crisis and demands a radical overhaul” (Social Work Tutor)
“Stop blaming social workers for burnout: employers are the ones burning us out” (Social Work Tutor)
“Four in ten social workers anticipate quitting the profession within five years on back of high stress and caseload” (Community Care).
As I read these headlines, I find myself drawn into a moral panic, as if the general media wasn’t already doing a good job of making social workers misunderstood and bad at what they do. After all, I am a curious social worker and the surge of the professional commentators and experts clearly suggest that something’s not quite right.
Maybe my ignorance suggests the need for the radical headlines, but I can’t deny, there’s something niggling in me that just wants to learn more about the stakes at play here, and my role within it. I’ve come to realise, whether we like it or not, we are all a part of the problem, and inadvertently have some form of a role to play in it.
It’s kind of strange, I don’t hear anything like this whilst in the office. I mean most people are anxious but that’s normal. Everyone’s working excessive amounts. That’s normal. Social workers go off “unwell” for months but that’s normal. When Ofsted visits everything’s focused on paperwork and case files being up to date. That’s pretty much all normal to me.
But what I find fascinating here, is the relationship between the different crisis situations that we are seeing and a direct connection to the profession’s inherent health crisis. I refer to the burn out crisis. And it’s strange, but the burnout crisis never seems to be raised as a crisis at all. Not by anyone I can recall.
As I reflect, I raise several questions within myself, which seems to have evolved into a bit of an intellectual pursuit blended with an infusion of soul searching. At the very least, my pursuit does not conform with my idea of play, however, feels at large – more necessary and crucial at this point in my career. And an arduous task it is.
By extension of my pursuit, I consider the role the current literature plays in my understanding and experiences around health, wellbeing and burnout. I consider how the profession itself can tell a story that goes beyond the headlines and transcend deeper into the narratives of social workers themselves.
In a podcast discussion hosted by me, a social worker and Imran Choudhary, a personal trainer in the fitness industry, I grapple with social workers’ experiences of burn out using some of the article’s radical literature in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding.
During the conversation, the social worker asserts; “it’s how we were offered advice back to the people at university. It’s preparing us properly to begin with”. “Training has a big part to do with this. If you do it right you will retain the workforce”.
Interestingly, he comments on the lack of training and support provided by universities and how he wished he could have relied more on his wider support network.
Which made me think, maybe the beginning of the story of crisis begins in the classroom when educators fail to warn and prepare us for what’s really ahead. We take this for granted.
That kind of silent authorised crisis that doctrines and manifests in mysterious ways – “I don’t just mean training on the job, I mean the physical elements to this as well. Your eating, your religion, your work, it’s a big circle and it’s a part of who you are. It’s not just one thing”
The kind of crisis that whispers – “Doubt and confusion. Everything was on top of me. I was uncomfortable where I was. I was too afraid to speak to friends and colleagues”
“I wanted to find another way to get through this” – “The doctor at the GP looked at me like yeah, another person. What does care look like? I couldn’t find that in the GP office”
As I begin to develop a deeper sense, I discover the language of a silent crisis, riddled and unsurfaced. I find the voice of a social worker whose journey and narrative testifies to the statistics behind the headlines.
- Almost 40% of social workers are looking to quit the profession.
- 4 in 10 social workers anticipate quitting the profession within five years on the back of high stress and caseloads.
- More than half of Local Authority social workers feel stressed about their job.
At the ending of the podcast discussion, I provide the social worker with an opportunity to send a message to the workforce that requires no further elaboration.
“I think you need charismatic leaders to set the right tone but equally, you need the people on the ground floor those who are still in management and at operational level to believe in your service. To know what the service stands for. And to live it every day. To set those high standards”
But, after all, from his point of view, what’s everyone moaning about? He’s moved on to a better role in management. He’s healthy and well & traverses the pathless path to an enhanced CV, right? Though, I don’t think we should envelope ourselves in a happy ending just yet, as the challenge remains, the headlines remain as stark as ever and the silent crisis of burn out does not appear to be a priority in the profession.
In such a climate, it only feels right that we as social workers, collectively discuss how we validate and understand experiences of crisis. And we need to acknowledge that burnout is a crisis. I believe that, in bringing together a diversity of voices and drawing on personal experiences we are able to gain a more compassionate and nuanced response, to some of the issues that have been brought into focus by social work professionals and experts.
During such times it seems to me that it’s more important than ever for social workers to come together to discuss and explore how we subjectively process the wider issues that constitute of a crisis at varying levels.
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