Guilt, Work and Switching Off

Over the weekend, I was reading Dorlee, from the ‘Social Work Career Development’’s guest post ‘The ABCs of Self-Care for Psychotherapists’ on ‘Private Practice From the  Inside Out’.

It is a useful and interesting list that can be extrapolated for many in the social work and social care sector – and probably many other sectors and areas where we work in stressful environments to be honest.
Libby's Guide to Total Relaxation

hewgriff @ flickr

It made me reflect on some of the ways in which our organisations work and are structured here in the UK and how unhealthy some of the ways we are forced to work are.

It is easy to blame poor management in the public sector (and that’s what I’m concentrating on, because honestly, that’s what I know) and in many cases it would be a fair place to apportion blame.

I have seen so many friends and colleagues ‘burn out’ by being almost criminally unsupported in the work place – ‘learning by doing’ through the false assumption that employers make that somehow social work graduates are immediately ‘ready for practice’ due to having one statutory placement.

Placements during the course are good arenas for training but they aren’t any more than a stepping stone to practice which is one of the reasons I am so strongly in favour of an assessed year of practice prior to registration as a social worker in the UK.

The real area for exploration though is the assumptions that are made at higher management levels about what work can and is safely carried out ‘on the front line’. I wonder sometimes what happens in the higher echelons of the Adult Services (and Childrens Services) directorates in the local authorities when they set some of the strangest and oddest targets and keep feeding the pressure on to the front line managers. It seems so very very distant.

So back to ‘self-care’ and ‘switching off’ from work.  It is something that, I think, for me anyway, takes practice.

I sometimes draw on my A level economics recollections of ‘Cost Benefit Analysis’ but instead of ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ – I have the two ‘mental columns’ of ‘Things I can change’ and ‘Things I can’t change’ (without the financial implications!)

I can’t change whether Mrs M is going to have a fall this weekend. I felt that although she lacks capacity to make a decision as to her care and placement needs, it was in her best interests to stay at home in potentially risky environment as she had, prior to her dementia taking hold, indicated she never wanted to ‘go into a home’. She knows her way around her own home and while some ‘trip hazards’ may have been removed through an Occupational Therapy assessment and actions resulting from that, she remains a bit wobbly on her feet. Do I think about her when I go home on a Friday – sure, maybe a little – but I know I’ve done everything I could and I can’t stop her falling on a Friday evening or even on a Monday morning.

Am I worried about Mr Y who I assessed last week and made a decision not to admit to hospital under the Mental Health Act? Well, a little – after all, he wasn’t well and was disturbed – but I have to follow the criteria of the Act and I genuinely didn’t feel that he met them. Yet. I can’t ‘save the world’ or prevent all the accidents and incidents that might have adverse effects happening – so I try not to over-worry about them.

I am bound by the law of course and if someone doesn’t meet the criteria for compulsory admission to hospital under the Mental Health Act and they retain capacity – there’s nothing I can do. Quite rightly. Although sometimes, that instinct that drove me into this job – the ‘wanting to help’, the ‘wanting to make things ‘right’’ – it tries to pull me in another direction and those seeds of worry can be planted to blossom through the evenings and early mornings or over the weekend.

Sometimes I have to do this consciously and logically tell myself to evaluate situations.

Sometimes the worry comes because there are things that I haven’t done at work – telephone calls I haven’t made – reports I haven’t sent – visits I haven’t made.

Time is limited. As long as I can justify the time I do spend at work, I try to detach myself from these thoughts. I could always do more but the job is one of constant re-prioritising. Sometimes I forget to do things I’ve said I’d do or follow up on things I said I would. It happens. While it is my ‘fault’, I don’t necessarily see it as my ‘failing’. I know I can account for every single minute that I’m paid to be at work – even those minutes that I’m sitting chatting to colleagues about the weekends’ television or having a cup of coffee – because if we don’t have those minutes, we run the risk of further rushed, unreflected, unthoughtful pieces of work.

Colleagues have told me since my first social work job how important it is to look after ourselves in this profession.  The spur that often drives people into social care is a wish to make a difference and perhaps a desire for self-validation – the odd pat on the head of feeling that you made a positive difference to someone’s life. Unfortunately that same trait which is usually a force for good can be used and manipulated by managers to force people to work overlong hours, not take breaks throughout the day, push people to take work home because, you know, Mr K will suffer if you aren’t able to finish the paperwork this week. They know well how to pull on our ‘conscience’ because the same happened to them when they were mere practitioners.

It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you know the people involved. I’m drawn into some of the guilt because I promised to visit Mrs P last week. Well, I won’t say promise, because I don’t put things in those terms, but I said I would – then things happen and other things seem to take over and the telephone call about this or that suddenly has to take priority – and before I know it the week is over and I haven’t seen Mrs P or written up the report that I should have or telephoned a family member to confirm dates for respite.  It’s hard not to feel that I haven’t done my job.

But by weighing up what I did and how I prioritised, I can, at least switch off and learn to ease some of the personal responsibility by redrafting and reframing it as organisational guilt and responsibility.  That isn’t to say that I slack off or try and push the blame on others – to be clear, I never do that with a service user – and always take personal responsibility there as the last thing anyone ever wants to here if they are upset, disappointed or distressed is a social worker trying to fob them off on someone else – but mentally I try and differentiate between ‘things I can change’ and ‘things I can’t’.

For me, it works. But sometimes it’s something that has to be learnt each for themselves.