Care plans – Now and Future Me.

This morning I read a post by Mark Neary (whose blog I highly recommend) which highlights the hypocrisy and inaccessibility of the language of social care. I am used to jargon. I have been working in health and social care since 1993 so a lot of the language comes easy to me and I can almost forget what is jargon and what is usable by ‘normal’ people. It is posts like Marks that remind me of where our sector has lost its humanity. When we talk about ‘accessing the community’ rather than being a part of it as a part of a personal budget, we seem to have lost the idea of what community actually is.

 

Mark’s post got me thinking about how my life would be in the care and support plans I used to write so I’m going to imagine and put myself in that situation and see what my care plan would say. It’s not quite going to be ‘me me’. It’s going to be the me who, in 30/40 years time is living with a dementia which has affected my cognition. I’m in my 80s. I’m living alone and have no children. I’m a bit of a loner because I always have been and don’t have many friends living nearby.

Because someone in an office decides I may not be able to make decisions about what care I need, those decisions are made for me. I have a personal budget, of course, because everyone does. It isn’t a snazzy flexible one because I get confused by money and finances and am not sure I’d be able to make decisions about money management. I get my £5 and my £50 mixed up and that’s got me into all sorts of trouble at the local supermarkets. Sometimes some of the local lads offer to clear my garden. I give them £100 for an hour’s work because it seems fair to me and they are such nice lads. They always smile and they come every week. So my ‘personal budget’ is managed by the local authority.

 

Between 7.30am – 8am I have a carer to come and give me a shower or strip wash. The carer often doesn’t turn up until past 8.30am. I’ve always been an early riser so sometimes I try and get up and dressed within her help. I don’t like waiting till 8.30am when I’ve been up since 5am. I can’t manage the shower though and she thinks it’s a shame to change me after I’m already dressed.  “Carer to help with shower or strip wash”. Sometimes I’d like a bath. There isn’t enough money for that. That’s a shame. I last had a bath four years ago. I remember it sometimes.

 

I sit in the lounge. The carer sometimes puts the television on before she leaves. I don’t pay much attention to it. Because I’m over 65 now, I don’t get any ‘day opportunities’. The day centres have closed and I don’t have any family to visit. I sit and watch TV. It’s ok. I don’t want enforced company so I’m not so lonely. I miss going out to the shops though. Accessing the community? That would take too long and cost too much so I just have a carer come once every fortnight to do my shopping. I write out my shopping list in advance. Mostly it’s the same from week to week. I don’t do spontaneity anymore.

The carer comes at 12pm to make my lunch. Lunch is a tuna sandwich. Lunch is always a sandwich because there isn’t time to cook. It’s always tuna because I once mentioned I liked tuna 2 years ago. Now I have tuna sandwiches every day.

“carer to prepare light lunch and cup of tea. Clean up afterwards”. Sometimes I miss coffee.

 

It’s Thursday which is shopping day. Shopping day is only once a fortnight. So shopping is lots of instant meals which don’t need to be prepared. I wish I could go out sometimes and potter around in the supermarket. But that would take too long. You see, my allocated hour wouldn’t be enough because I’m a bit slower on my feet. It’s tins of spaghetti hoops. Bread for the freezer. Milk for the freezer. Chocolate hobnobs. Some cheese. Lots of tuna. I like all these things but sometimes I miss sushi.  “fortnightly local shop. Collect list. Leave change”.

 

It’s nice when it’s shopping day because it means something different happens. Mostly I just sit and watch TV. That’s my meaningful activity.  I have a personal budget. Look how well self-directed support works for people like me. What do you mean it’s no different? This is innovation. I know how much my care package costs now. That’s changed my world.

 

I can’t wait until dinner. At 5.30pm my carer comes and makes me something ‘light’. But this time it’s a hot meal. Spaghetti hoops on toast. I like that. Sometimes I put some cheese on the top but have to be careful with the toaster. I can’t manage it on my own. At least I get another cup of tea and help to the toilet. Sometimes I miss coffee.

“5.30pm – 6.15pm Prepare dinner – leave with cup of tea. Help to toilet if necessary”.

After dinner I watch TV for a while. Usually I fall asleep.

The carer wakes me up when she comes at 9pm to assist me to bed.

 

So that’s what the day looks like. I get up later at the weekend. That’s nice. But I like getting up early.

 

Now coming back to my present self, I wonder how my own care plan would look in the language of, as Mark calls it, ‘Carespeak’.

So snapping out of reality, this is my current ‘care plan’. I wake at about 5.30am and interact constructively with other household members, which is problematic to those who don’t want to be awake at 5.30am. This is evidence of my self-centred nature and need to mind my anti-social behaviours around waking early. Sometimes I don’t have breakfast. This presents a risk to my nutrition and hydration. Occasionally I might eat an unhealthy breakfast, like a croissant. This is high in fat and could lead to unhealthy habits and putting on weight which could affect my health.

I have a shower and this means that my needs related to hygiene are met. I ensure that I wear clean clothes which are appropriate to the season. Although sometimes I judge poorly before leaving the house and this means that I may not be protected from the risk of inclement weather. I don’t own an umbrella. This is a risk as it often rains in London. I am able to meet my personal care needs.

I go to work. Now, I’m accessing the community and engaging in a meaningful activity because I have economic worth. Although sometimes it isn’t meaningful. Sometimes it’s sitting in front of a screen staring at spreadsheets. It has economic value and therefore it is meaningful. Daytime activities, I have them, you see. All is good.

I might go out after work. This means I am socially active. I am engaging with my informal support network i.e people who are not paid to be with me. I can tick off my ‘social network’ tab on my care plan. I have friends.

When I get home, I should really clean the house a bit. But I sit on the sofa and fall asleep in front of the TV. This is a risk. This means that I have not been able to meet my domestic care needs. The washing up is in the sink. I am, therefore, in a house, where there is a concern that I am not managing domestic care sufficiently. This worries those people who write care plans. All is not well.

I go to bed at a reasonable time. I don’t have any problems with sleeping and am not worried or concerned by my lack of sleep. All is well.

 

So why is it worth considering? These two care plans say different things but in the same way. We can look at aspirational documentation and what we should strive for. I always want to strive for better. But those who are striving, don’t forget the people like me or the future me. Don’t get carried away with the language that can actually mean less than it should. A personal budget does not mean choice. Choice does not mean choice as often as not. If we want to solve problems, we have to know the problems and how they would affect us.

 

It’s worth considering how are lives are and how they would be in the context of ‘care planning’. Would we plan care for others, the way we would want it planned ourselves? And if not, why not?  Food for thought.

Burnout and Avoiding it.

I attended an event recently for newly qualified and student social workers. There were a number of speakers of which I was privileged to be one. Although it wasn’t a part of my ‘talk’, some of those speaking began by talking about how long they’d been in ‘social work’ and how they had managed to ‘stay fresh’ and counter burnout. It’s something I have appreciated more since I moved out of my social work job and moved into less intense, less stressful role. I don’t think I ‘burnt out’ but I do think I left at the right time. Things had been getting increasingly stressful at work due to the cuts and the increased workloads and a couple of incidents in the lead up to my applying for other roles made me realise it was probably a good time to take a step back.

While I can’t make the claims that some at the event did of having 20/30 years in social work ‘frontline’ practice and remaining fresh, I think there were a number of things that helped me in the 12 years that I did. I probably wasn’t helped by my having had a particularly difficult last few months at university. I sailed through the exams and modules but struggled with (and eventually failed) my MA dissertation. That meant I qualified with a PGDipSW rather than an MA in Social Work and although it made absolutely no difference to my career in the sense that I could work as a qualified social worker, it did give my ego quite a knock. In retrospect, although I’d never have said it at the time, it set off a chain of events which actually made me far more competent and able to deal with challenges, it made me realise I could fail and yet, succeed at the same time. It made me realise that intellectual achievement isn’t defined by qualifications or what particular tutors think. I did go back and retake the dissertation eventually (actually it was 5 years later) so I do have my Masters now, but at the point that I failed my dissertation, I had never failed any academic test which had been thrown in my direction, indeed, I’d pretty much sailed through without much effort.

On qualifying, I went into a fast paced adult social work team in inner city London. I thrived and was both excited and terrified as my caseload went from the six I  had on placement to around an average of 45. I’ve written about these experiences previously so won’t go into details. The things that got me through weren’t so much the management because, as I’ve realised since, my first manager was the least competent manager I’ve had through my professional career. It was my colleagues. I was extremely lucky to work in a team with very experienced, very kind practitioners who were patient with me as a newly qualified, agency social work – earning more than many of them, but they helped and guided me without anything but generosity and kindness in the absence of structured managerial support, in fact, sometimes in the context of an organisation where there was bullying from ‘above’.

I won’t list all my professional experiences and teams but it did get better. I had moments, not in my first or second year of practice, but in my third, fourth, fifth year when I wondered how long I’d last. When I first qualified, I didn’t have time to stop and think – it was doing and learning, doing and learning without any space to grow. By the time I settled into a good team, with a firm but fair manager who had a strong ethical focus, I looked around me and wondered if I would ever be as ‘good’ at my job as the person who sat next to me. The key that got me ‘on track’ was taking the old PQ1. I don’t think PQ1s exist anymore – this makes me feel old – but it was the first stage in the post-qualifying process. This was before (this is where I really DO feel old!) the NQSW/AYSE-type schemes. We were expected to practise on the ‘front-line’ and then think about post-qualifying practice awards. So it was I started the PQ1 in Social Work Practice at Brunel University which was a part of a London consortium. At that time, as well, it was a generic first step. I did the PQ1 alongside social workers in children and families and mental health. We had slightly different tinges to our work as I’m sure can be imagined, but we came together to share our learning.

The PQ1 gave me an absolutely amazing mentor, who was a very experienced social work manager in the same borough as me, but in a different team. She was someone I wanted to be like. I wanted to know as much as her and exude as much kindness, thoughtfulness, generosity and competence as she did. Most importantly though, I learnt what ‘reflection’ really was about. Of course, like any social work student, I’d studied, learnt and thought I understood ‘reflection’ when I was at university. I’d studiously completed reflective diaries and written reams of essays about reflection through my course – but it was at the post-qualifying stage, when I’d worked for a few years and held a fairly hefty caseload, that I grew to understand reflection far better. I have no doubt whatsoever that the PQ1 saved my career and saved me from burnout. Having a mentor who ‘got’ it and helped me create time and strategies to ‘remain fresh’ saved me.

It was this reflection process through the PQ1 and the encouragement of my mentor, that pushed me back to university to retake my failed MA dissertation. It also pushed me to apply for a different job and that, in turn, led me into the move to Mental Health services – so it really did change my life.

‘Getting’ reflection saved me and helped me to grow. The other part of that came a few years later when I started to write this blog. This writing process, and I did ‘force’ myself to write daily over a number of years – gave me the space to consider how my work fit into a wider health and social care system. It gave me a voice that even though inconsequential on the larger scale of things, meant I didn’t take my frustrations with work, into work. It pushed me into directions I had not considered, for example, a desire to learn more about current research and policy documents. It meant I read far more about health and social care and understood my part in it. I became more active and more vocal at work in areas and became involved in BASW and later, the College of Social Work as a result, realising that influence doesn’t always necessarily need to link itself to management or leadership.

So what would I advise to a newly qualified social worker to avoid burnout? Well, it wouldn’t be the newly qualified social worker I’d be most worried about for a start. It would be the social worker 2/3/4 years into their career where I think the difference can be made. While I don’t think I’m necessarily in a position to ‘advise’, I would say, rather, what worked for me.

 

- Asking for help. I didn’t ‘ask’ for my mentor to turn up. She was ‘assigned’ to me but she was one of the key people who had a significant influence on my career and my life. I have never told her that. We can’t always have that handed on a plate though and hopefully there are different sources for mentorship other than people turning up at your desk saying ‘I’m here to help you’. Maybe it’s something that experienced practitioners have a responsibility for. I am no longer a practice educator, but I was, and I miss having students but I think having an oversight or interest in the careers of ‘younger’ (not through age but through work experience) professionals is something we can all do.

 

- However well you think you ‘get’ reflection, you can always ‘get it’ better. I’m learning massive amounts about  how to develop skills to reflect on my practice and the effect that I have on other people’s lives. I had some skills which started to grow at university and through various experiences of supervision but different environments and different experiences need new skills to learn and grow all the time. I’m absolutely convinced that it is reflection that leads to good and caring practice so we need to create space and learn from ourselves in different ways. Sometimes we don’t have mentors. Sometimes we work alone. Sometimes we don’t get the supervision we should. Sometimes we don’t have environments which allow us space. So we create this for ourselves, in our own way, often in our own time to learn. It might be writing things down, it might be unpicking things internally, but it is necessary to all aspects of work with other people that affects their lives.

 

- Being interested in broader issues. I got involved in BASW and when BASW imploded in pique of rage, I got involved in the College of Social Work. I was and am just a ‘lowly’ social worker without any managerial responsibilities but I decided that didn’t mean I didn’t have a useful perspective to bring to the table. Indeed, in some ways, it was more useful than all the managerial perspectives put together. I found that reading and trying to understand policy issues and papers as they were published meant I could relate some of my day to day work to broader social justice agenda goals – which it didn’t always feel like on a micro level.

 

- Support each other. I didn’t have much management support when I first started but was pulled along through my first year by colleagues. I hope, in turn, I’ve been supportive to those I’ve worked with over the years. Sometimes it’s hard to explain the work to anyone who doesn’t do it. While work/life balance is essential of course, sometimes you need to speak and share with other people who ‘get it’ and can support from a non-managerial viewpoint.

 

-Work/life balance Say it often. There need to be some boundaries between work and life. I know it’s not always easy, I’m not always great at it myself but doing things that are ‘not work’ really does help!

 

- Knowing when to go and when to return Although it may not be for me to judge, I don’t think I ‘burnt out’ but I could feel myself getting more frayed around the edges before I left my last job. I increasingly had begun to feel I wasn’t necessarily being a ‘good’ change in the lives of the people I worked with as my work became more about telling and less about asking. As I felt I was taking away more than I was giving. I never stopped caring, I don’t think, but I felt increasingly frustrated with the amount of change I could affect and my role in the system. I became more frustrated – not with my immediate managers – who were always incredibly supportive, but of the organisations I worked in and the lack of my voice within them. I think I left at the right time. Now, I miss my old job. I think, in the back of my mind, I hope to return to ‘frontline’ practice someway, in some capacity. When I do, I expect I’ll be enthusiastic and re-energised in a way that was very necessary.

 

So those are some of the things that helped me. I am in another job now but the same tools help me through. I try to take time to reflect and whilst I don’t write here as regularly, I have other ways to ponder and learn from the ways I affect people’s lives.  It would be interesting to know other people’s tips for not burning out.. especially if you’ve been in the job for a few years.

What I’ve learnt about Social Work

A couple of ‘anniversaries’ have come up recently for me. It’s six years since I published my first post on this blog. It’s one year since I left my social work job. These milestones have caused me to reflect on the nature of the profession and the sector that I work in in a number of ways.  I read my first post yesterday and it drew me back to why I started writing in the first place. I’d tried writing blogs before this one. I wrote a stupid little diary as an angst-ridden teen which was much more interesting when I looked back on it than while I was writing it. I made a conscious effort here though, to write about social work and social care.

Over the years, writing and publishing posts has helped me in ways I can’t begin to elucidate but I’m going to try. I’ve written about social work and social media many many times but in looking back over the six years and learning more as the conversations grow and develop, I’m going to indulge myself again and share some of the things I believe that writing here has changed and shaped my perception of the career I chose.

What I’ve learnt about social work by writing about it.

I never really ‘expected’ a career in social care when I started working in the sector. I didn’t know what I expected to be honest – possibly because I didn’t ‘expect’ very much. In all honesty, I was grateful to have a job that didn’t involve me having to work in a shop or an office. I was grateful that I could be paid to do something that I actually enjoyed doing. My expectations weren’t exactly stellar but I never really thought about ‘career’. That wasn’t for people like me. I’ve written a few times about how I moved from a support worker in residential care to a social work student and then a social worker. It wasn’t something I was planning or expecting but a happy coincidence. My first job after I qualified was busy and I constantly felt incompetent or that I should be doing something different or better – most of the times, I was probably right. My manager at that time ranks as one of the worst I’ve had. She was, quite frankly, a bully. I didn’t bear the brunt of it though. I kept my head down, did as I was told and relied a lot on the support from older and more experienced colleagues.

I went away, returned to social work and new legislation, procedures in a much better place. When I started writing this blog, I was finishing my ASW training. In the borough I worked in, we completed the training ‘full time’ with placements in other teams. I’d moved from adult social work into mental health social work for a few years and the ASW training was the logical next step. The service needed more ASWs. I wasn’t actually too keen. I remember a conversation I had with the service manager at the time when he told me that it would probably be the last opportunity I would get (I was on the last ASW training) before the rush of nurses and OTs and the shift towards AMHP training. Last chances. They can be quite a pull. I was struggling at work too for various reasons and to be brutally honest, welcomed the idea of taking some time out to do more training. I didn’t really think too much of the thought of what it would mean in the long run.

The course was the best I’ve ever done. Far surpassed my initial social work training in terms of quality of teaching, level of understanding, support and knowledge gained. I started writing here as my thoughts moved towards returning to work and a job I wasn’t sure I was even very good at. I’d had time out to study and I’d enjoyed it and I was worried about going back to the day to day ‘grind’ and becoming jaded. The ASW training lifted all the lingering inertia out of me. I wanted to do well. I wanted to learn. I was sad that the learning was coming to an end. So I started writing.

After the first few months, I forced myself to write something every day (giving myself weekends off). I wrote a post before work religiously for a number of years. Yes, the quality varies massively – but it forced me to find things of interest either in the news, from work or from my ‘outside work’ life to trigger. Some posts were longer than others, some more interesting than others. It was a good discipline, looking back and I don’t think I could return to it.

It taught me much more about the profession – I’d thought in terms of myself as a ‘adult social worker’ or a ‘mental health social worker’ but I hadn’t really thought about ‘social work’ per se because the work and the culture in childrens services, as I saw it, was so very different.

Then people seemed to be interested in what I was writing and I saw it was an opportunity to ‘sell’ social work. I explored for myself what being a social worker meant to me. I’ve been through the tunnel and out the other side with it to be honest. I’ve had, as we all do, those good and bad days. By writing I was able to share some of that. I was able to better reflect on what I was doing on a day to day basis and how it fit back in the profession as a whole more than my own little part of it.

As I wrote, I learnt how proud I was to be a social worker. That was something quite new for me. We joked about it but I didn’t realise, until I was writing for an ‘external’ audience, how important it was to me to represent the good work that is being done, by good people – often unnoticed – in the sector.

The blog also gave me a voice. I’ve made an issue of the fact that I’ve never been a manager. I was able to tell people who would never otherwise have listened, what it was like to work in the field and to have changes happening around you when there was no thought or consideration given to the experiences or voices from the ‘coal face’.

I was, and still am, amazed that people listened to me. Me. I’m not anything or anyone special. I don’t have any particular professional status. I haven’t written reams of peer-reviewed papers. But people seemed to read, listen and respond to me. That helped my confidence as an individual and as a practitioner enormously. So this blog and the other things I’ve written over the years, have given me confidence and have helped me to reflect on what it is to be a social worker, what it is to work in social care – and health services – and to realise that I could use my voice in different ways, even if I couldn’t always say things to my managers or in the Trust or local authority I worked in, someone, somewhere might listen and make things better in some ways.

I learnt a lot from blogs and comments from people who use social work and social care services particularly. I could never have the same interactions with people I worked with on a day to day basis because however pleasant and approachable I think I am, there is an undeniable power that I had in my statutory role. Reading about how people feel when they are detained under the Mental Health Act or have treatment forced on them, is an insight which – while hoping I was always sensitive – I could not get from other sources. Listening to how people felt when they experience crappy social workers or crappy carers or crappy systems, reinvigorated me to stop feeling so powerless in relation to the organisations which I worked in and realise the immense power I have in other people’s lives and to make sure I used it well. I may not be able to help those who have experienced the worst of statutory powers but my growing awareness of the impact would, I hope, help those who crossed my path.

Ultimately, and ironically, writing about social work, understanding its important and having more confidence in my own voice and opinions is what led to me having the confidence to leave it behind me. Isn’t life funny.

What I’ve learnt about social work since leaving it

I’ve written  my ‘goodbye’ piece to my Trust and local authority so won’t go over that ground again. It’s been an interesting year as I’ve left behind  a specific ‘social work’ job and moved into a job that doesn’t require a professional registration. In some ways, it’s solidified my determination to identify and pretend I’m still a ‘social worker’. It’s also though, allowed me to see the profession ‘from the outside’. When people meet me now, they don’t necessarily know what my professional background is so I have heard some interesting perceptions about social workers and can distance myself when I choose to.

A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting with various people from various places. When we drew to a close and had that brief chat before we headed off in our separate directions – we were talking about some of the difficult situations that had arisen. The person sitting opposite me said “You should try being a social worker”. In the skip of a heartbeat, I responded “I am… I mean, I was.. er.. I’m still registered”. Then I realised, coldly, that of course, no one in that room apart from me knew that. That was an odd feeling. I had, so long, identified as a social worker than having it not be either immediately obvious or relevant was another step away for me.

I get pangs of wanting to go back. Particularly, I miss some of the day to day work with people that I don’t get now. Then I try to remember what it was like, last summer, when the cuts bit hard and the stress levels were enormous. I’m happy where I am now, really I am but it’s not quite the same as sitting in someone’s front room – building a relationship with them and their family – and being ‘there’ to help see through some of the complications of ‘services’ to make things work out a bit better. Or meeting someone in hospital – or when you rock up to carry out an assessment and being able to follow it up through discharge to a better place. I have to admit i’ve occasionally glanced at social work jobs just to see if they tempt me back. I wouldn’t say ‘never’ but the longer I am away from the ‘coal face’ the harder, I think, it will be to go back. Maybe I’m kidding myself into thinking I will. I need to have that comfort blanket of believing that if I applied for my old job tomorrow, I’d be able to slot back into it.

I’ve learnt that social work is about so much more than local authority social work or social work within the NHS. I knew this, theoretically, of course – but now, as one of the ‘outsiders’ I see how important it is that social work doesn’t become pigeon-holed into only meeting statutory social work with a job title that includes ‘social worker’ in it.

I am using all the skills I gained through my training and my experience in my current job. Being a social worker, I believe, with my knowledge of assessment processes, experience, use of legislation and value base make me able to to what I do. Could someone without that do it as well? Yes, they can and they do – sometimes far better – but for me, it’s a good fit.

I now have a little distance from the profession which allows me to cast a more critical eye too. I was incredibly frustrated by the battles between BASW and the nascent College of Social Work back in the day. I see some kind of impasse has been reached now but I do wonder how sustainable it is to have two organisations – in a profession which has never particularly clung to representative organisations – battling for the same space.

With initiatives such as Frontline and the posts of the Chief Social Workers (who, it seems, have turned out to be mouthpieces for the govt – but I wait for them to prove otherwise to me) it has become really important for social workers to help define social work and not allow it to be defined for us by the Department of Health and the Department of Education. It isn’t only about child protection social work. It isn’t only about statutory social work. I am still as much of a social worker as I was last year, even though I don’t NEED to be a social worker for my post – perhaps I need to convince myself of that too but if we allow others to define the profession too narrowly, we will all lose out by it. In a world where I see the profession increasingly fragmenting, the real strength and voice can only come in unity. That’s what I’ve learnt.

In all, I remain incredibly proud to be a social worker. Although I was desperately sad to leave my last job and can’t help feeling tinges from time to time about whether I did the right thing, I can’t go back now. I have landed on my feet and the amount of learning I’ve done over the last year has been enormous. Mostly it’s about building on the skills, knowledge and values. You can’t be a social worker without all three of those. I’m still working on all of them and so very much locate myself within the profession. Will professional organisations, voices and representatives acknowledge that? I hope so.

Social work allowed me to create a ‘career’ when I never really thought I would have one. It’s allowed me to build confidence in myself so I can better represent and advocate others. It’s given me a great gift and I never expect to lose sight of that, forget the opportunities I have been given and stop fighting for the necessity of good social work. That’s done together though and we can build a better ‘social work’ with more voices.

That’s what I’ve learnt.

As I move on with both the writing and the career, I can’t help but feeling rather self-satisfied too. I am proud of what I have achieved so far but know there’s a long way to go. Pride isn’t particularly pretty but I’m hoping the confidence I’ve gained can be used to better represent, advocate and drive improvements for others as well as for me, rather than allow me to sit in a self-satisfied space and relax.

On Leadership – from a Follower

I read a lot about ‘leadership’. Tips on being a great leader. How to lead. Even, rather comically in my view, on the Frontline site, something about social work being a ‘leadership profession’. Most of the advice comes from other leaders – or people who claim to be leaders. I’m not a leader. I’ve not read or studied anything about ‘leadership’. I’ve not, and can’t honestly believe I ever will go on any ‘leadership’ programmes. It’s not who or what I am about. Perhaps that gives me more of a vested interest in good leadership because while I am very contented to be a follower, there’s nothing more I want than to be led well.

I’m fortunate to have generally, in my career, had good managers with a few notable exceptions. It’s above that first-level management position that I want to consider how we, as competent professionals are led and thought it might lead to some reflection on what I would like to see in a leader. There’s an ongoing contention that leadership and management are different. I’m not entirely convinced by that. Leaders have a ‘position’ and management gives that role a concrete base. Managers are told to lead but people are drawn to leaders – perhaps that’s the difference. I’m yet to be entirely convinced by people who say that leaders can lead from without a management or authority position.

So what would I like to see in a leader in order to feel that I am being ‘led’ well.

1) Expertise

I have to feel that the person who leads comes from a position of authority. Maybe that is a management perspective but I am more considering an element of expertise. They have to be able to know what they are talking about.  In health and social care, I think this is where there is a strong push for patient/service user/carer leadership can come from because the expertise is in the understanding not just the processes of services which are delivered but having experienced them and working through them. In most ways, the expertise garnered in being at the end of services is the most precious one that some ‘professionals’ find hardest to garner. That feeling of being powerless in the face of the powerful state leviathan – whether it be the hulking hierarchical health service or the unfathomable processes lurking within the local authority and being victim to its resource allocation systems. Experience isn’t the only base for expertise, although it is a uniquely precious one. Leaders could be experts in a particular way of working, communicating, understanding or interpreting. There has to be a basis of authority though based on knowledge – although that knowledge can be achieved through many different strands.

2) Competence

As well as knowing what they do, they have to be good at actually doing it. I have often reflected on the days I started working in social care, firstly as a volunteer, then as a support worker. I did ‘hands on’ care work for a  number of years before I moved to do my social work training. When I was working in residential care and in care management, I’d often say that we should never be asked to do something by someone who wasn’t prepared and able to do it themselves. ‘Hands on’ care shouldn’t be ‘above’ anyone and certainly not above any so-called leader. This worries me somewhat about people who ‘fast track’ into leaders. When I went out to review people in residential homes or to review home care packages, I knew what the constraints on time for staff were. I knew that you couldn’t provide someone with a dignified shower and breakfast in a 30 min call. Although I couldn’t always change the local authority commissioning, at least I was able to empathise (for what it was worth) with the people who were using the service and the care workers who had to carry out the tasks which often institutionalised poor practice through the lack of time. Of course, I’m not anything special but extrapolating out, in  my previous job, I knew my manager was not just a competent social worker, she was an excellent social worker and I saw her at work from time to time and remained (and still do) in awe of her competence. So I followed and took advice and strived to be as good as she was and is. My main sadness is that was rarely acknowledged from ‘above’ for her. I wasn’t as convinced that our Assistant Director was a competent social worker because I’d never seen  him in a practice environment and suspect it had been many many years since he had ever come close to face to face practice. How could I be effectively ‘led’ if I wasn’t sure of his competence, not in the management role but in the tasks the organisation was being asked to achieve. Of course, I’m not unrealistic. I wouldn’t expect every Chief Executive to be able to do all nursing tasks – especially if they aren’t nurses but I would expect a deep understanding and appreciation of the work done by everyone in the organisation, from the person cleaning to the catering staff to those out in the community.

3) Humility

This is where I think these graduate ‘leadership’ programmes slip up because I think a good leader needs humility. They need to be aware of their own power and the effect that has on people. I feel a little intimidated by power and yet, simultaneously, I can be unaware of my own power at times. In some ways that’s what I see as humility. It is an appreciation of both the power that the leader has and the effect that has on other peoples’ interactions with them. The conversations I have about work with someone in my team who I see as a peer, are very different from the ones I might have with my manager, which, in turn, are different to those I might have with a director or chief executive within the organisation I work. So likewise, an awareness of that power I think, is very important to lead as well as an understanding that learning comes from different sources and is rarely a top-down process. One of the great blessings of social media in my view is that it has reinforced my learning from different angles and has weakened my inherent respect for the assumption that learning has to come from ‘teachers’. That’s something I’d extrapolate to ‘leaders’. You who lead can and must learn from those who follow in order to lead well. Just because you have a higher paid salary with greater position and power doesn’t mean the expertise you have is broader than all those ‘below’ you. A dose of humility is needed because without it, none of us can continue to learn and grow. I see this on Twitter sometimes when you see who some of the so-called leaders follow and interact with. There are those who will not deign to converse with those whom they assume to be ‘below’ them. I imagine their learning curve is more shallow than those who are open to conversation, learning and interaction from all-comers.

4) Reflection and Empathy

I see reflection and empathy in the same bracket because I believe that critical reflection leads to empathy and the two can’t be separated. A leader who is in a position to be able to ‘make a difference’ has to be able to consider their own role in systems that sometimes work and sometimes (perhaps more often) don’t. They can’t delegate constantly but sometimes need to think through what they can do to make changes. It might be something little or something major – depending on the position or the context. Then, they have to be able to look back and consider if they acted in the way that best served those who are being led. They have to be able to accept and learn from mistakes and acknowledge them. This is a key part of growth and understanding. This is a key part of being able to retain the confidence of those who follow. This is what I want from a leader. When things are being done or have been done badly, I want honesty not fudging. Reflection is a part of that where we learn to understand our own motivations and influences in the choices we make. Empathy grows from that as they begin to learn from others and understand better how it is to see things from different angles.

5) Inspiration

Perhaps this is the most difficult to define but I think it’s a core difference between leaders and followers. This explains some of my lack of faith in ‘leadership programmes’ because I’m not convinced that inspiration can be ‘taught’. It is the ability to move people in a particular direction because they believe in you and want to work towards your vision. It’s people having faith in you and your decisions. Maybe I’m not able to define it well  but I think it is definitely an area that can be refined but it  has to be genuine and honest. You can’t read a book about how to inspire others and expect to learn from it. You have to learn it, I think, and as is very clear, I’m far from an expert, by truly believing in what you do and having a passion for it.

So there’s my very uninformed and personal plea to leaders in how to lead me. That’s what I want from you. I don’t want to be a leader, but more than anything I want to be led well and I want to feel we want the same things, you and I. We want to make things better and we want to work together for those whom we serve. I don’t want to be engaged in battling against the organisations I work in to feel that I’m serving those who use the services to my best. I will feel well-led when we move in the same direction.

I understand leadership is tough. That’s one of the reasons I don’t want to do it.  I’m lucky that I feel well-led now and there’s no better feeling as a member of staff than to have that utter confidence that we move in the same direction and have the same goals.  I  realise that’s a very good place to be.  Lead well and we will follow well and with all our hearts and you will have much more power to achieve those great outcomes with committed and focused followers behind you, supporting you all the way.

Weekly Social Work Links 30

As the days become more distinctly autumnal, I’m sharing some interesting links I’ve come across over the last week. As always feel free to share any other links you find that are related or interesting in the comments section.

I’m always wanting to find new blogs that are related to social work internationally so if you find one I haven’t noticed again, please leave a link!

Firstly, another plug for This Week in Mentalists – a now-traditional weekly round up of mental health related posts from which I stole my inspiration for these round up posts. Essential weekly reading for me and for all those who have an interest in mental health.

Indeed, it was through This Week in Mentalists that I came across the wonderful new blog ‘Veruca Salt’ who works in a CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service) Team and in which she discusses anger management. Rang a lot of bells with me. I really look forward to following her blog which she suggests in her byline, will share ‘views on children and adolescent mental health’.

Keep writing, Veruca, I think this one will be a corker!

I also came across this post on Blogher which is written by someone who worked as a social worker. The title says it all really ‘The Problem with handing out the Happy Pills’. She raises some excellent and thoughtful points about medication.

Social Work Soldier – another new blog I’ve recently found, shares her thoughts on her first weeks in a new job.

While Social Worker Mom looks for a new job.

And as the author of From Media to Social Work gets ready to embark on her course, she shares her thoughts of the shadowing experiences she has had over the summer.

The Masked AMHP shares part one of his ‘genesis’ story or how he got into social work. It’s a fantastic post!

On a related subject the Social Work Career Development shares some motivational quotes and asks for more examples from readers.

Social Worker in the South meanwhile shares a moving story which indicates the importance of this line of work.

and Going Mental explains that sometimes ‘the system’ works.

On Eyes Open Wider, meanwhile, some reflection and thoughts on what the innate sadness in some of the work that is done.

The Modern Social Worker shares a post about Eugenics, Race and a woman’s right to choose. Perhaps particularly timely as the abortion debate ranks up here in the UK.

SocialJerk has some fine posts as always including this one about the paranoias that exist about adults working with children and some of the absurdities that have arisen around these paranoias.

Community Care’s Social Work Blog has a post about a ‘game’ developed by the University of Kent to assist in training around child protection practice through the use of scenarios (I haven’t actually tried the game but would be interested to hear from anyone who has)

Nechakogal’s blog shares some relevant (and freely accessible) research on different subjects,  which is worth checking out. I’m a great fan of open access for research and papers.

How Not to Do Social Work shares his variation on ‘What I did in my Summer Holidays’ post with typical thoughtfulness.

One a completely different note, A Social Worker’s View draws our attention to Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month.

And The New Social Worker Online Blog considers the impact on endometriosis.

The Social Work Tech Blog has a fantastically detailed ‘how to’ post about using technology to ‘observe’ sessions and to learn from them.

Finally congratulations to Gamer Therapists who has published a book on Video Games and Psychotherapy.

Castlebeck and CQC – Brief Thoughts

Paul Burstow MP addressing a Liberal Democrat ...

Image via Wikipedia

I don’t have time for a long post today, just a few brief thoughts that came to me as I considered the unsurprisingly critical report on Castlebeck by the CQC.

Of course it’s easy to be wise after the event but it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when the CQC comes down hard on Castlebeck after it required a TV undercover programme to uncover the widespread abuse at Winterbourne View. Where is our faith in the CQC? Well, personally, I didn’t have any to begin with but this report is not a solution, it smacks of a desperation to gain any kind of public recognition of the CQC itself rather than a real attempt to improve any system of regulation.

Regulation costs. Good regulation costs. In the week that the Ofsted is planning two week, unannounced inspections of childrens’ services, I ask why services for adults have been allowed to be neglected?

Yesterday I heard Paul Burstow on the radio on my way home. Two things struck me, firstly that he didn’t seem to have any understanding of the difference between a hospital such as Winterbourne View and a care home. He  seemed to be happy to blame local commissioners for the quality of the placements that they commissioned in hospitals without an understanding of what had led to this situation – namely chasing the lowest prices.  He still is banging on about his so-called Excellence scheme which, if anything, will make things worse as I wrote here. The Excellence scheme is opt-in and it is for companies to pay to be a part of. That is not about excellence, that is about money-making.

The CQC should be demanding excellence from every single service it inspects. Every day. It doesn’t. It demands sufficient paperwork every couple of years, at most. That is how it inspects. Actually, the CQC doesn’t inspect any more. It does not have enough people to inspect, control and check.

We have allowed companies like Castlebeck to rake in millions of pounds of profits on the back of providing poor care to vulnerable residents and patients. We have allowed this because noone is calling the CQC and the government to account for destroying adult care services.

The CQC criticising Castlebeck – of course it will but remember this is on the back of one television programme with hidden cameras. What about the thousands of homes without hidden cameras? Where are the checks? Where is the scrutiny? Where is the excellence?

Sadness, Sympathy and Self

Sometimes, some days feel filled with sadness. I had one of those days this week. I don’t like to use the word ‘hardened’ but to put it this way, in over 10 years of frontline social work practice in some of the most deprived areas of the country and in the inner city, I’ve seen a fair bit of what society has to throw in terms of crumbs to those who are some of the most vulnerable members of it.

I look at the high rises that skirt around the cities and I see hundreds of lives being lived, families existing and stories being told. Some with hope and pride. Some with desperation and despair. All different, all a part of this community and society we live in. Poverty is real. Despair is real. The two don’t have to go hand in hand though.

I have a strong stomach and don’t bat an eyelid at all sorts of things when I walk into a house. I’ve probably seen worse.

In some ways, human misery is a part of my trade. Not always, of course, because there are the wonderfully reassuring smatterings of hope but difficult social circumstances and social deprivation run a theme through my career.

Although I often emphasis that mental ill-health is certainly no respecter of social class or financial assets, it is sometimes the level of deprivation and the difficulty and shame of poverty that I see that reminds me of the way that this political class intentionally ignores and isolates some members of the community.

Perhaps the most difficult part of  my job is wrapped up in the AMHP (Approved Mental Health Practitioner) role. It is a mirror into my ethical compass and while I enjoy the aspects that were involved in training and the support and development and even community feeling I have with other AMHPs, the process of making a decision about someone’s forced detention in hospital or a forced medication regime is never one that can be taken lightly and I don’t think it is one that should ever be ‘enjoyed’.  It is power, writ large. It is control.

Sometimes people thank you retrospectively for ‘making the right decision for me at the time’ but more likely that isn’t going to happen.

This week, I carried out a Mental Health Act Assessment in a hospital. That is very far from unusual. When I read the background and the circumstances, when I conducted the assessment and made the application for detention, which I did, I was overcome with a feeling of sadness for the action that I had taken and for the life that it predominantly affected.

For obvious reasons  I won’t go into details – anyway, even if I did they would possibly sound fanciful and unrealistic. To people who think that I have a ‘difficult’ job, I would say I  have had a walk-on part among some fine and very strong people who have had to contend with sickness, pain and family circumstances that have rolled all the dice against them in the lottery of life.

And when I sign the papers and write up the report, I don’t forget. I think, I reflect and I try to learn. What could we have done to prevent this situation from having occurred? Sometimes the answer is nothing but sometimes there might have been a different path, a different action or different guidance that might have led to a different outcome.

Sometimes, some days, I just feel overcome with sadness. Sadness at the injustices that are meted out by life, fate and circumstance. Sadness at the way that this society perpetuates and builds on those injustices of circumstance. Sadness at my role my own complacency in accepting that we have created such an unequal and unfair society.

In a community where people who live on state benefits are treated with an intention to humiliate and scorn and where the government not only condones and supports this, it tries to create further barriers between the ‘haves’ (with ‘have’ meaning working tax-payer) and the ‘have-nots’ (meaning those who depend on the state for income) it sickens me as I know that the rhetoric of ‘choice’ and  ‘community capacity building’  are empty words which mean nothing without the world of privilege. By privilege I don’t mean money, necessarily, but include the privilege of having family or friends around, the privilege of being well enough to build up networks of support, the privilege of being a part of a community. There is so much more to privilege that cash assets or income.

Sometimes I want to shout against the system that I am a part of. The social care system in this country is not ‘fair’ – it reeks desperately of unfairness and the pushing of ‘choice’ in very narrow terms onto a wide range of people who in reality have no choice whatsoever further marginalises and discriminates against poverty, incapacity and isolation.

But I continue in my job. I go into work and ‘buy into’ the system. In my own defence, I fight as hard as I can from the inside and I don’t forget the names, the faces and the stories of those whose lives touch mine.

I remember, I note and I learn and sometimes, that just fills me with sadness – but when I stop feeling that sadness, I stop learning, growing and trying to create a better world. One person at a time. In spite of the system I work in and with rather than because of it.