Are You Thriving or Surviving?
Rachel Baker examines the effect of Social Work burnout.
I’ve been a Social Worker for over 16 years now and like many, I went into the profession to help others. My career choice had very little to do with that fact that I’m adopted; social work just kind of happened but that’s a story for another time! But, suffice to say, I LOVE it, and over that time I have worked in Child Protection, Child in Need, Fostering and Adoption, latterly becoming a Therapeutic Social Worker specialising in trauma based attachment issues, birth parent support and change. I have also qualified as a Life Coach and I have found a niche supporting Social Work, Social Care and Health Care workers to find themselves again amidst the stress and busyness that is their work, to achieve self-care and a healthy balance in their lives.
For much of the first 10 years of my social work career, I spent a lot of time, almost 60 hours a week sometimes, at work. I would have a pen and notebook by my bed and wake up two or three times a night, things whirring around my head that I just had to write down. I would sometimes be a rubbish partner and friend, often having to cancel social plans because I was having to work late on a Child Protection situation, or I hadn’t managed to finish even one of the several reports and recordings I had to do. I often sat at my desk, in my car or on sofas and if I’d worn a pedometer in those days, it would have barely registered I was alive and breathing let alone active! Then there was the lack of a proper lunch time, so I ate quick beige food, or hundreds of the cakes and biscuits that sit in abundance in social work offices, calling my name and beckoning wickedly to me. And even though I knew all of this wasn’t healthy, I did it anyway, partly because I loved the job, partly because the job takes over your ENTIRE life at times, and partly because I saw my colleagues and managers doing the same so I thought I had to.
Any of this sound familiar? Why do we do it to ourselves eh? What would we say to a friend, colleague or family member that was doing the same? We’d probably use words and phrases such, ‘unhealthy’, ‘you can’t go on like this’, ‘heading toward an early grave’, ‘life is for living’, ‘work to live not live to work’ and so on. And we’d probably say what I’m going to say to you now…….IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!!!
Yes, I am kind of shouting that because I’ve learned the hard way, through exhaustion, anxiety and running myself in to the ground, that we cannot pour from an empty cup. We cannot possibly serve those we seek to support if we are merely surviving on our hamster wheels. We need to thrive, to live our own lives and to prioristise self-care. I’m so very glad I learned this lesson when I did because in the last six years, I’ve become a parent by way of adoption to two amazing but emotionally and attachment challenged little boys; then a few months after adopting, my mother-in-law died of Leukaemia; then a few years later, our youngest was diagnosed as being deaf. I think all of this would have sent me over the edge if I hadn’t had learned the importance of prioritising self-care and my own health.
So, as a Life Coach and a human who now does look after herself, how can it be done without compromising the demands and responsibilities of the job? Well, below is a list of the things I now do. I don’t always achieve everything on the list but majority of the time I do, and that has definitely made me physically, mentally and emotionally healthier.
Diarising report writing and recording and STICKING TO IT! Working back from when a report is due in and diarising sessions and the writing up from that due date
Organising my time during the working day including booking 3 sessions at a time with clients so if they cancel or DNA, I know I don’t have to scrabble around for another date as we have them in already
Prioritising Supervision and using part of that to discuss my well-being and welfare
Ring fencing ‘me time’ – at least 2 hours per week
Ring fencing and prioritising family time, friendship time and date nights with my partner and diarising this if necessary
Work devices off at the end of my working day and remaining off at the weekends
Refusing to allow myself to work at weekends and after 7pm at night; this job could be 24/7 if we let it. So don’t let it.
At least an hour a day of non work time away from personal devices and social media, as in my phone isn’t on me or within reach
No device use within an hour of going to sleep
Ring fencing work time: prioritising annual leave, taking a proper lunch break and taking any accrued toil
At least 30 minutes exercise every day including walking, running, swimming or cycling – I found I spent an inordinate amount of any spare time I did have on my mobile device or watching TV. I barely miss the half hour I’ve swapped for exercise but I feel so much better, physically and emotionally
Eating healthily; I’ve lost and maintained a loss of 9 stone in the last 3 years from changing my relationship with stress and food. I’m less muzzy headed and I eat regularly, which keeps me energised.
It’s not been easy to do these things and I’ve had to make a significant mindset and lifestyle shift but I have shown to myself that I have a choice, as we all do, and I can choose to be controlled by the job, or I can choose to make better choices that refuel and fulfill me so that I can then do my job more effectively. I’ve found that following my new rules on the list has actually freed up a lot of head space and I have so much more energy for my work. People I’ve coached have also reported back the same after attending my Life Enhancement and Change sessions and workshops.
This list is not a one size fits all as we are all different. However, the ethos of working out what time we have, what changes we need to make and how we can do this will apply to us all. Two great tools to use are the Life Balance Flower and a Time Wheel. Have a go at the ones below (I am indebted to Google Images for providing me with these visuals) and see what areas of your life are satisfying, fulfilling and recharging you, and what areas you need to address and bring into more of a balance.
On the Life Flower mark each area out of 10 and this will give you an idea of what you want to change and address. Then have a look at how you use your time; there will ALWAYS be time for the things you want to prioritise, it’s just sometimes we prioritise the things that aren’t healthy and/or aren’t going to achieve self-care. After you’ve done this, consider whether you want to make changes and how you want to do this.
Rachel Baker is a 44 year old mother of two and a social worker with 17 years experience. She's worked across a range of areas including child protection and adoption, latterly specialising in trauma based attachment and working therapeutically with birth families. Rachel is also a qualified life and well-being coach and specialises in coaching social workers to avoid and manage stress, anxiety and burnout.
To find out more visit https://acornacademycoaching.wordpress.com/