“Take Time for Yourself!” WHEN?!?!

29 09 2010

For as long as I’ve been preparing to be a social worker, people have been preparing me for burnout. Back when I was an undergrad, I would mention that I wanted to work in child welfare. “How long do you think you can do that for?” people would ask.

The implication was always that this is not work that one can do for long. I’ve listed the reasons once or twice: bureaucracy, long hours, low pay, large caseloads, depressing situations, excessive amounts of giraffes…

Sorry, just wanted to be sure you were paying attention.

They talk about it throughout Psycho Beach Party social work school. If you’re at a halfway decent agency, they’ll also talk about it once you begin work. The phrase of the day is “self-care,” which is not nearly as dirty as it sounds.

Though I suppose it could be.

The idea is to take time for yourself. Do things to ensure that you aren’t taking your work home with you. Relax. Take a vacation.

Except you have to work those long hours, and you don’t get paid enough to take much of a vacation. (Though that Barbie kiddie pool on my roof served me rather well during the dog days of summer, thank you very much.) A day at the spa is kind of a tall order when you’re budgeting to pay off student loans so much that Wheat Thins seem like an outlandish luxury.

But still we try.

When I was an intern, I attended what was possibly the most hilarious training on sexual abuse that has ever occurred. That’s right, I said it. And I stand by that statement.

This training was run by a well-meaning lunatic who had established herself as somewhat of an expert in treating girls who had been sexually abused. It was actually a series of trainings, and this particular session was dedicated to, you guessed it, self care.

Working with someone who has gone through or is going through something like that can be very draining. It affects everyone, and if you don’t address it, you’re going to break down and quit sometime soon.

This woman thought it would be helpful if we all shouted out ways we have of “de-stressing.” Soon, the designated note-taker’s hand was flying.

“Go shopping.”
“Call my mom.”
“Listen to music.”
“Dip bread in oil.”
“Exercise.”
“Get a mani-pedi.”

Ah yes, because nothing takes the edge off incest like a mani-pedi. Seriously? Yes, these stupid things can help us to relax. But I don’t think I need to sit around and share these earth-shattering notions with my coworkers. Hell, during that hour (yes, sixty full minutes) that we spent creating this list, we could have gone out for a shot of Jack walk.

It was even more helpful when we each got a copy of that list, typed up and placed in our mailboxes. Trees died for this.

Our supervisors tell us that they’re concerned about our welfare, and don’t want us to burn out. I believe them. I know that they don’t want to replace staff, and I believe that, for the most part, they care about their workers as people. But I’ll believe it even more when they do something about it.

Rather than email out a list of fifteen new requirements, including extra assessment tools to be completed, more required home visits, and larger caseloads, ending with the sentence, “And remember, our jobs are difficult. Take time to take care of yourself.”

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8 responses

29 09 2010
Fos

Check out “a systems approach to child protection work” by dr elieen munro. An excellent article very relevant to what you are saying here!

It’s not that we’d not like to take time off, mostly we just can’t!

I’ve been very privileged to enter the profession as a graduate to the role of supervisor. It means I’ll never have to work in child protection (if I continue to play my cards right). I deal with children in care, but not the horrific things my fellow graduates have to. I’ve so far worked 20 hours extra in the last 3 weeks but I consider this to be nothing compared to my colleagues in child protection.

In my office its very common to skip lunch, or eat at your desk whilst working. Managers tried to ban this behavior but you basically can’t tell a social worker to do anything. 😉

The social work culture is dangerous. My life became a lot easier when I realized the world wouldn’t collapse if I took a day off. Doesn’t stop me checking my emails though…

29 09 2010
socialjerk

I am usually an eat lunch at the desk type person, thought sometimes I allow myself to be dragged out of it. It’s difficult. I feel the way I think a lot of people do–if I’m not doing my work, I’m thinking about it, so I might as well be getting it done!

Thanks for the article recommendation, I’m going to look into it.

30 09 2010
cb

That list was a bit chuckle-worthy! I did some really good training a few years ago which was actually about identity and cross-cultural working but it included a session about how we manage our ‘self’. One of the most important things they explained was never to take the ‘stress’ home and not to take things out on our own families. One of the brainstorms that we did actually take back to the office was having a Friday afternoon ‘discussion/vent session’ in the team where we can ‘leave stuff’ that’s on our mind for the weekend. It has actually worked out really well. But i know I’m very lucky in the team that I’m in because our manager actually trusts us to get on with our work and allows us this time.. it has made quite a big difference though.
As far as possible, I block out that time on a Friday to spend it with colleagues in the office. It isn’t always possible as that’s the nature of the work but often it does.
I find that having good colleagues is a massive difference in the way that we manage these stresses.

30 09 2010
socialjerk

“Dip bread in oil” was a direct quote from the trainer. She was very insistent that it be included. I feel like it really changed the way I practice 🙂

I like that Friday afternoon idea. I worry sometimes that “venting” just gets me more worked up, but I think if it was a regular thing that we all participated in, it could be really helpful.

I definitely agree about good colleagues. I have a great supervisor and a few great colleagues (plus one who drives me crazy, but more on her another time…)

30 09 2010
Carolyn

A bunch of us (we?) medical social workers used to have tea Friday afternoons, until the tea maker did the ultimate in self-care and retired. Curses, foiled again. I particularly like it when the Managers say “take care of yourself” in the midst of a meeting scheduled for the lunch hour! And then won’t pay for coverage when a social worker is on vacation, so we all fill in for her, thereby adding to our stress loads (and yes, the next person will do the same when it is her turn). They always take a long time to get positions filled when somebody escapes/leaves leaving the patients, their families and the other social workers hanging. We do try to do coffee in the mornings so that we have a chance to talk problems out, be they family, client or work based.

3 10 2010
socialjerk

The fear of pushing work onto coworkers is such a huge obstacle in taking any time off. We’ve especially been dealing with that with people leaving for maternity leave, because the higher-ups won’t approve temporary replacements. Oh well. I guess it’s all part of the process of growing as a social worker–figuring out when you need a break and insisting on it.

3 10 2010
patty purviss

Thanks for the humor and sharing of this ridiculous job we do. I am feeling burnout for the first time in about 10 years. I don’t wanna play anymore. I want to go home now. But everyone else’s games look boring, and I might be too weird for them. Sigh.

3 10 2010
socialjerk

Thank you for reading. I also can’t imagine doing anything else at this point! Good luck with figuring it out.

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