What do social workers and apples have in common?

17 08 2010

Turnover! Get it? OK, I apologize for that one. I was reaching.

Social work has all of the job characteristics that make people run for the hills. (In this instance, “the hills” means “private practice in Westchester.”) The pay is low. The hours are long. The work can be dangerous. It is emotionally and psychologically draining. Clients are difficult. Co-workers are usually twice as crazy.

It’s a tale all too familiar with social workers. You show up your first day. You meet your office mates, the people you’ll be sharing cubicle space with for forty sixty hours a week. You’re shy, hesitant at first. But eventually you let your guard down, perhaps over a yogurt in the counseling space that doubles as a break room. Friend requests are sent and accepted. You begin mocking poking gentle fun at your boss and nuttier coworkers.

And then one day it’s over. That person is leaving for the greener pastures of mental health services, public schools, or whatever it may be. After having your work-heart broken so many times, you stop opening up.

For some reason, though, this only happens with the people you like. The people you can’t stand seem to defy all of the conventional rules and norms, and remain in the same agency for eternity.

It’s not only hard on the workers, of course. The clients are the ones who really have to deal with this.

“OK, here’s your new worker. Get to know her, share your life story and trauma with her. Oh, wait, she got offered another position. No, I can’t tell you where. She’s gone. This is your new, new worker. Why yes, she is six months pregnant. Oh look, there’s the baby. Here’s your interim worker. Why are you looking at me like that? You’ll be fine.”

I remember reading stories about things like this. A social worker being such a part of a person’s life, and then leaving when the worker is still needed. People writing their memoirs of their tough inner-city upbringing and eventual triumph into sports/music/business usually have one or two of these tales to share.

I always said I would never do that. But what choices do we have? Sometimes, it’s time to move on. We can’t wrap up every case before that time comes. We can’t hold on to clients forever, and we shouldn’t want to. There will always be people we could have helped more, or at least wish we could have. Maybe that’s what those workers who stay in the same position forever are thinking. Maybe this is what they’re trying to avoid.

I just hope that whoever has been taking my granola bars out of the fridge moves on damn soon.

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17 responses

17 08 2010
Gord

Well said, it’s as if being a social worker alienates us from the rest of society in some ways. If you are in an engaged relationship with someone where there is help occurring you would generally maintain relationships going forward after the problem solving has occurred…

Unless of course you are a social worker. Our codes of ethics dictates that we must turn off the normal notions of a relationship and turn on a “professional self”. This of course, gives our clients a skewed idea of what a relationship is and maybe would even create attachment complexes within ourselves!

I know this sounds dire and it isn’t all bad really. People are generally understanding when we move on to these greener pastures, and we of course find new challenges to stump what should be a tree of emotional growth.

18 08 2010
socialjerk

It’s especially hard when clients want to stay in touch with you, or know how you’re doing, after you’re gone. It’s so hard to distance yourself and explain why that is inappropriate, professionally, when you’ve developed this close relationship with them.

18 08 2010
cb

This made me chuckle and I could certainly recognise pieces of it – but as one of those who ‘moved on’ into a lovely mental health team – I have to say that very few people in the team I’m in ever budge. I never thought I’d be able to stay in any job more than a couple of years but I’m turning into one of the ‘furniture’ types as the more I see new and potential jobs being advertised, the more I think I’m better with the ‘devil I know’ – especially as I have a lovely sympathetic manager and they don’t come around all that often..

18 08 2010
socialjerk

A sympathetic, pleasant supervisor makes a huge difference. I feel like you know you’re at a pretty good agency when there isn’t such a revolving door for the workers. I think about moving elsewhere at some point, and it is definitely scary. We had one woman leave after six months, and then beg to come back. Shockingly, the boss was not having that 🙂

21 08 2010
Lee Anne

I laughed and laughed, as I related to all of it and yes, turnover is a fact of life in this profession. My favorite quote in the post: “For some reason, though, this only happens with the people you like. The people you can’t stand seem to defy all of the conventional rules and norms, and remain in the same agency for eternity.”

I think this warrants research and I believe burnout is a factor in these co-workers unlikeable status. My experience has been that we social workers suck at helping our co-workers with it. Wholesale the expectation seems to be take care of self social worker, that is, unless it is something that isn’t work related (physical health related or bereavement). Remember when social workers used to have regular qualified supervision? Anyway, really great post.

22 08 2010
socialjerk

I remember getting an email from a director, listing ten new tasks that we had to accomplish with each client (new assessments, forms, etc.) that also informed us that our caseloads would be increasing. It ended with a bullet point reminding us to “take time to take care of ourselves.” Sure…when should I do that? Thanks so much for reading!

22 08 2010
Allison

Great post!

22 08 2010
socialjerk

Thank you!

23 08 2010
fos

I find it especially difficult to switch off from service users, especially given that the majority of mine are under 18 and in the care system. It is heartbreaking when a case is re-assigned or you see a 3 year old who has had *9* different social workers in their short life.

A case which I held whilst on placement (child protection) was assigned to another worker & I did the handover. Less than 2 months later she is now leaving for a new job and those kids are going to have a 3rd social worker in as many months. It’s unavoidable but it creates havoc for the kids.

I try and remain as “human” as possible whilst maintaining a professional face. My service users know that I’m not their friend, but you try explaining that to an 8 year old? 😦

23 08 2010
socialjerk

The idea of being just one more person who comes in and out of a child’s life is pretty heartbreaking. Like you said, it’s unavoidable, but it’s hard not to feel like you’re doing the exact thing you want to prevent in this field. There are those cases that you get to see all the way through to the end, though, and that is usually pretty amazing. Thanks for reading.

23 08 2010
Clarita

I’ll be back to work so soon you won’t even know I was gone :-)..However I will be 6 months this Thurs. LOL….and I’m sorry about the granola bars how disrspectful..I only take fruit and umbrellas…I hate mangos so your safe…

23 08 2010
socialjerk

My expectations are entirely different for my coworkers whom I like.

24 08 2010
Jomaga

Question from a non-social worker (does that make it sound like I’m a worker who is just not a social person? Anyway…) – Would it ever be appropriate for you to keep in touch with clients? To see how they’re doing/let them know what you’re up to? With the understanding that you are no longer their caseworker/this is just a friendship/acquaintanceship? It’s a different situation, but when I was a teacher I sometimes wanted to keep in touch w/ former students and see how they were doing. I know some former teachers who are friends w/ their former students on facebook; not sure where the lines are drawn…

24 08 2010
socialjerk

Good question, asocial person. It’s a touchy subject, and was a common debate in school. I feel like it’s just about always inappropriate, at least in the work that I do. The relationship with clients is very one-sided, in a way–they tell you everything, you hold back all your details. I can’t imagine the transition into being friends going smoothly. I have had clients who I’ve thought, if we met in a different way, we’d definitely be friends. But I think that once the case is closed, it’s important for the client to move on independently, and that’s hard to do if the relationship continues.
For people who work in fields like community organizing, it might be OK, because the relationship is so different and is more collaborative.

1 09 2010
Clarita

In regards to contacting old clients or participants. When I worked for NYC Children Services or ACS/baby snatchers, after I closed a case out I kept in contact with some famalies that I felt very close too, I havent worked there in over 7 months and I had a particular teenager find me on face book he wanted to know how I was doing and that she and her family missed me. I felt very touched by her looking for me and I talk to her on a regualr basis. I guess it all depends on who you are as a person and a professional.

20 11 2010
patty purviss

And the cores are expendable!

21 11 2010
socialjerk

Plus one to the Patty!

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