Sick burn(out.)

16 09 2013

So often, the only way you get what you need in this field is to kind of be a pain in the ass. No one wants to, but you have to. Lots of people don’t check their voicemail. Or they don’t answer their phone. Or check their email. They might not even go here.

So you have to be “proactive.” That’s the nice way of saying “stalker.” It’s fine, no charges have ever stuck. But it’s the way things get done.

I’ve even been guilty of it. Sometimes phone calls slip through the cracks, as much as I pride myself on actually responding to those who reach out. I love getting surprised “oh, thanks forgetting back to me!”s. And it happens routinely. I’m always astonished when other service providers actually answer their phones and I don’t get to use my pre-rehearsed voicemail message. “Hello? Oh, oh my god. Yes, hi. Why was I calling again…” I would be more coherent if I ran into Ryan Murphy on the subway and he asked me to originate the role of the singing sex educating social worker on Glee.

Not that I’ve considered that. Anyway.

You need to stay on top of people. When I get a new referral, the first thing I do is call the new client. Then I call the referral source. Then I email the referral source, copying her supervisor and my supervisor. Then I call the referral source’s supervisor. And of course I write all this up.

When I started here, I would’ve thought this was obnoxious. But it’s a matter of course. People are busy, and you need to remind them that you’re waiting and that you’re invested.

Sometimes, though, people aren’t prepared to deal with it.

Again, I’m guilty myself. I got annoyed recently when a guidance counselor called me. The first call didn’t bother me. I was in a meeting, and called her back within a half hour. I left a voicemail, as she didn’t answer. She happened to call back when I had stepped away to pick something up at the printer, and I called her back within two minutes. “Oh, finally!”

Hmm…all right. Do not appreciate your tone, lady. Though I get how it is when it’s your emergency.

But then…later that same day…

I had referred a family for a mental health evaluation, and hopefully, follow up services, for the teenage son. The hospital wouldn’t admit him, but he had a pretty serious history of violence and self harm. The mother told me a very believable story of phone tag with the mental health agency’s intake worker, explaining why the appointment hadn’t been scheduled yet. The mother got through to her once, but the intake worker said she was too busy and would call later in the day. Then three days want by. It was so believable as I’d been involved in a similar delightful game.

I wasn’t “it,” but I called back anyway. Proactive, remember?

“Hi, this is SJ from Anonymous Agency, I referred this child last month and just wanted to follow up and see if his intake was scheduled.”


SJ: “Hello?”
Worker: “I’m looking, give me a minute!”

Oh, ok. Normal functioning adults ask others to hold, but you’re doing your own thing. Cool. Follow your heart.

“Ok, I left you three voicemails!”

You left one, and I returned it, twice.

“I called the mom, but her phone was disconnected.”

Weird, she always answers for me. And I remember when clients have working phones.

She then started aggressively telling me the phone number she called for this mother. She told me my phone number. Halfway through her barking out the family’s address, I realized we had gotten off track. I wasn’t calling to question her outreach efforts. I was calling to make sure this family got the services they need.

She didn’t take that statement in the spirit it was intended.

“Well their referral is closed for the next three months. Send them somewhere else, I don’t know.”

I seem like a real sarcastic asshole, I know. And often I am. But not to clients, and not unprovoked.

There is no reason to talk to people like that. What cause do people have to answer the phone ready for a fight?

People love to talk about how busy, or stressed, they are. One of my most important lessons of adulthood has been–who cares? You’re not special. Everyone is busy, everyone is stressed. Very few people you speak to are sitting at their desks, feet up, luxuriating in a lack of paperwork.

I can deal with some rudeness. I write snarky blog entries and bitch to my coworkers. But if she’s talking to me like this, why wouldn’t she be talking to clients the same way?

That’s why my supervisor called her supervisor. It might sound like juvenile tattling, but we absolutely cannot let these things slide. If people are this miserable, they need to move on. Work at Starbucks and passive aggressively fuck up latte orders if you really hate the world that much. Don’t put yourself in a position where a child is denied needed mental health treatment because you’re too grumpy to do your job and engage with people.

Burnout and frustration happen. We have to learn to keep them in check. This wasn’t my first experience with a service provider like this. I hope maybe it can be the last, though.


14 02 2013

Last week I was all about what our field needs to do to keep us from burning out, and taking some of the load off of us. Unfortunately, we do still bear some responsibility. So I’m taking a break this week and letting someone else talk. Please enjoy this guest post from Addison Cooper, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Springfield, Missouri. He writes Adoption Movie Guides at

Four Things Social Workers Can Do to Avoid Burning Out

1. Get a Boss who “Gets It!”

We’re often drawn to working with specific populations. That’s understandable. Our own histories or inclinations lead us to naturally want to serve specific groups of people: kids in foster care, underprivileged youth, homeless persons or victims of crime. Doing work that means a lot to us personally is a great thing, but it also sets us up for burnout, if work that we care about with our whole heart is thwarted.

A long time ago, I worked with kids at a group home. One of them was sentenced there as a condition of his probation. He had been doing well in the program, and requested a day pass to take his citizenship test. The probation officer’s response, “He should have thought of that before he broke the law in my country.” I was frustrated for quite a while.

One way to avoid that is to work for an agency that “gets it” in the same way that you do. Maybe that means finding an agency that views their work as ministry, or an agency that’s unapologetically non-profit. Maybe just finding an agency that still has an obvious corporate culture dedicated to serving clients. One of the great things about social work is that our employment has the potential to be more than “just a job.” The next step is to find a place to work that’s “more than just an employer.”

2. Be Like an MMA Fighter!

Don’t hit people. That’s not what I mean.

Most people visit doctors when they know they’re sick, because they want to get better. But I’d bet that all MMA fighters visit doctors very regularly, even when they’re in excellent health. After all, they make their living with their body, and need it to be in top condition – even better than “no problems” – in order for them to do their job well.

Some people visit therapists when they know they’re having problems, because they want to get better. As social workers, we use our minds and emotions to make our living, and we need them to be better than “just not having problems” in order to do our best work. Preventative therapy lets social workers vent, process case-, office-, and life-related stress, and develop deep insight and awareness which can inform their own practice.

3. Get a Life and Keep It!

I used to train foster and adoptive parents on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You probably took a quiz on it. Fundamental needs have to get mostly met before higher needs can be attended to. It took a few years of giving that training before I caught on that it doesn’t just apply to foster kids and their needs, it applies to social workers and their roles. Our more foundational roles (person, spouse/partner, friend) need to be in order before our more advanced roles (social worker, therapist, supervisor) can be at their best.

Social workers often put in extra hours in order to try to meet the needs of their clients. I left my first social work job about an hour late, more days than not. Sometimes, we forgo our own health and quality of life in order to try to secure health and quality of life for others. But it doesn’t need to be either-or. Schedule time for yourself. Quiet time at Starbucks, a run, a movie, game night with your friends, whatever. Put it in your calendar. Keep the commitment. Your clients, your friends, your significant other and you personally will all enjoy the refreshed, relaxed, more well-rounded version of you.

4. Mind Your Own Business!

Aristotle said (wow, do I feel strange starting a sentence with those two words…) that virtue was in between two vices. I think it’s pretty natural for good-intentioned folks, like social workers, to so fear the vice that’s furthest from them that they cling to another. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably not the kind of social worker who’s totally self-serving, not really invested in your clients, and just collecting a pay check. Heck, the article is about avoiding that. That’s probably not the vice that you’re going to struggle with anytime soon. But if virtue – or health – is between two extremes, maybe you’re clinging to the other vice – over-identification.

We want our clients to do well and to make good choices. We will continuously give our full, best, honest efforts to help them make decisions that will benefit them. But at some point, the point where the decisions are actually made, the choices are theirs. Social workers can and should still hold unconditional positive regard to the client, regardless of which choices are made. But the person making the choice is the client. You’re not responsible for it! At the end of your work day, breathe, reflect, maybe pray, and then let it go. This isn’t adopting a “who cares” attitude towards your job. It’s acknowledging that you do care very much, and that you’re taking intentional steps to keep good boundaries.

Arise and Seize the Day

28 01 2013

I am exhausted.

It’s just been one of those months. Suddenly almost all of my families are working (yay!) so I have I stay late to make sure I see everyone each week (boo!) Everything is due at once, lots of new cases are coming in, caseload maximums are rising, paperwork is multiplying, I’m working lots of hours I don’t get paid for, and I’m getting heartburn just typing this.

Really, I can’t complain. I mean, it’s what I signed on for. And everyone in the field is doing the same thing. So it’s ok. Just the way it is.


It was recently suggested to me that this isn’t the way it has to be. That maybe we could unite and agitate for change. Bizarre that this didn’t occur to me earlier. I mean, I helped found Students for Social Justice as an undergrad. And I watched Newsies at least 1054 times. That is a conservative estimate.

It’s ridiculous. We make shitty money for our education level, and it is not possible to get work done in the amount of time we are technically supposed to be in the office. Is it just that we’re not talking about it enough?

Note that I said “talking,” not “engaging in martyrdom.” It’s a fine line to draw, but we must make an effort.

Teachers have been talking about too little respect and money and too much work to do in a school day since the dawn of standardized testing time. Yes, they’re still getting a raw deal. But at least they have a union. And they get discounts at random bookstores, which makes me envy them terribly. They’ve done a good job of putting themselves out there as educated people doing an important job that they deserve to be compensated fairly for. We can argue over how much good it’s done, but at least it’s on people’s minds.

Most people don’t even know who should actually be called a social worker.

I think that’s the first step, actually. Title protection. We don’t have it in New York. I know it’s been implemented in Washington and Virginia, with some success. Of course, people can’t legally advertise that they’re an LCSW if they aren’t. But people can refer to themselves or their employees as social workers when they aren’t, and this happens all the time. It’s the first step to respect. Respect is the first step to sweet sweet cash proper compensation.

I’m quite open to suggestions here, as I have no idea how to make progress in this area in terms of law. I do think being open about this, and educating others about the fact there’s nothing wrong with being a caseworker with an Associate’s degree, but that doesn’t make one a social worker, is crucial and something we can all do. Not everyone who works in a social worky field is a social worker. Refer to a doctor as a nurse, and see what you get. People know to be careful about that. It would be pretty cool if they knew that about us as well.

We need to stop acting like self care is the answer. Let me put this in words social workers will understand–it’s kind of victim blaming. It’s not that there’s too much to be done, you just can’t be arsed to take care of yourself! Go to the gym! Oh wait, by the time you get out of work they’re about to close. Well, take a mental health day! But then you won’t get your contacts in, and you put the agency at risk of losing our contract with the city. Why are you so selfish?

Talking a brisk walk and listening to Mumford & Sons only goes so far. It helps you to deal with a shitty, overwhelming situation, before you’re able to change it.

Self care can help postpone burnout, but it doesn’t make it go away. Support from one another would help. When someone in the office says, “Hey, isn’t it kind of fucked that we’re twenty five percent over maximum caseload?” we should talk about ways to fight it in our agencies. We shouldn’t snort and say, “When I started here, we had nine million cases. Literally. More than the population on New York City, I know!”

To really address burnout, though, we need more fundamental changes.

This is where it gets complicated. The work we do and the programs that help us to do it are always the first to go when we realize the country is Texas with a dollar sign in debt. It puts us in survival mode. At my agency, we work incredibly hard to prove that we can do the most with the least. It’s not just because we were all unpopular in junior high and are seeking approval. It’s because we’re in constant competition for city contracts. When we get a new one, we’re momentarily validated. It’s working!

Contracts are the opiate of the social work masses. We don’t have time to fight for change when we’re treading water. Kind of like how we’d love for our clients to agitate for change to the public assistance system, but they don’t have time what with all their appointments for public assistance.

I know we all hate to hear “evidence based,” but like title protection, it’s an important step. We need to be able, in some way, to identify that what we’re doing is helping. Not just that we’re seeing people for a shorter period of time, but that they’re making measurable improvements and not returning for services a month later.

Social services and caring for society’s vulnerable needs to be a bigger priority. It needs to be recognized as something that needs funding. I realize that this statement is far from revolutionary. I realize that I offer nothing in the way of answers, only more questions. But maybe if we start talking about meaningful change that benefits us all, and therefore our clients, rather than exchanging war stories, we can make some of it happen?

I guess it can’t hurt.

Potent Quotables

23 08 2012

I’ve been a bit inexplicably down about work lately. I’m not sure what it is. I mean, it’s almost September, which means lots of lovely new school supplies. New packs of pencils and unblemished notebooks always make me feel better! And we just had a kickass picnic for our families, complete with a water balloon fight. (Note: if you’re going to challenge a coworker, maybe don’t pick the guy who runs marathons for fun. That was my fatal error.)

But my director has been on my case. Some cases have been extra frustrating. Sorting out LCSW hours is something that should be very simple and straightforward and yet it makes me want to drown things.

It’s no secret that I flipping hate inspirational quotes. Just because something is a highly rebloggable meme doesn’t mean that it’s something to live your life by. A lot of them admonish me to put my life in the hands of god or the universe, which I don’t care for. And some of them are just kind of offensive. Or stupid.

Sometimes, though, I need a little inspiration. Don’t we all?

We accept the love we think we deserve.” – Stephen Chbosky, the Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The book that restored 1999 SJ’s will to live. Because yes. It’s true. And it reminds you to keep your empathy up when a client sheepishly tells you she’s going back to the man who beat her.

There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” -Mary Lou Kownacki.

Courtesy of my good friend Process, Recorded. It pretty much sums up our entire field. And keeps me from smacking people on the subway.

A person’s a person no matter how small.” -Dr. Seuss.

For one, he told anyone trying to use this as an anti-choice slogan to fuck off. That makes me love it a whole lot. It also fits nicely into our work. Little kids deserve to be listened to. So do people with no money, or addictions, or disabilities. We’re all people.

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The quotiest of my quotes. But it’s also our goal. Did I help someone? A little? Not “did I change their life? Pay their way through college? Buy them a house?” Just help them breathe easier. Often that’s all we can do.

The baby bat
Screamed out in fright,
‘Turn on the dark,
I’m afraid of the light.’”

-Shel Silverstein

Everyone’s different, and sometimes we have to suspend judgment. Getting into someone else’s shoes for a minute can make all the difference.

In this life, all things are possible.

This was from a woman I met in Ecuador, who lived in poverty that went beyond the extreme. She was talking about how she had learned to speak English. I’ve never been quite so humbled.

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, it’s not going to get any better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss, again.

Hey, he’s a smart man. This one is also pretty cliche, but I like it because it puts the pressure on. Get to work, people. Caring but not doing isn’t really caring. It’s like when we tell kids “if you were really sorry, you wouldn’t do it anymore.” If you care, you act. And if you don’t, things stay just as they are.

I like impossible. ” -Doctor Who.

If I didn’t like impossible, I’d have packed it in to be a Starbucks barista long ago.

If all else fails, and you’re still feeling down, this is to be brought out in emergencies.

This was the song of the summer, not “Call Me Maybe.” (In certain circles, anyway.) I wouldn’t quite say it’s inspirational, but it helps. You can’t still be sad after this. That’s not how it works. Sometimes, you just need a smoke machine and some heels.

Bid adieu to your ennui, social workers.

Flames on the side of my face…

13 08 2012

I remember first hearing the term “baptism by fire” back in my catechism days. (They focused on baptism by water, and I started an argument over whether or not you could use ketchup. I was always a jerk.) My religion teacher meant something a bit different from how I, and most social workers, would use that term now.

By the end of my first week at Anonymous Agency, over three years ago, I started to feel like I knew what I was doing there, at least a little. I knew where the bathroom was, had met most of my clients, and I hadn’t gotten hopelessly lost. But that Friday…baptism.

That day, I got a call from one of the families I hadn’t managed to meet yet. I couldn’t entirely understand what the mother was talking about, but it had to do with her fifteen year old daughter and red juice. Would I come with them to the kid’s school for a meeting?

Sure. Only…what?

I was in the city (the Bronx is part of the city, but Manhattan is “the city,” for my foreign readers) for a new employee training that day. The teenager’s school was also in the city (again, Manhattan) so it worked out that I would meet them at the school.

Remember when I said I hadn’t met them yet? Yeah. This led to awkward, blind date style statements. “I’ll be the frightened looking white girl with the oversized purse. Will you carry a rose?”

Somehow, I managed to find them outside the school. The mom had all five kids with her, and was walking down the sidewalk saying, “Miss SJ? Miss SJ?” so it wasn’t as hard as I’d anticipated.

We got to the meeting with the principal, assistant principal, and guidance counselor. This was the first of many lessons that day: if they all show up, your kid of That Kid.

I finally managed to piece together what we were there for. Apparently, this young woman, we’ll call her Faith (that is a Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference, if you’re wondering) had a habit of skipping school. Earlier in the week, she’d done just that and gone to a classmate’s apartment. Just her and two boys. She was then deposited back at the school, incoherent and slurring, by those two boys, in a cab that immediately left.

Not a good sign.

She had gone to the hospital that day, but apparently there were new concerns.

All the time, this girl was insisting that she had just drank a cup of red juice (so that’s what her mom was talking about!) and nothing else. They must have drugged her! (Side note: I worked with this girl for a year afterwards, and she did not go to this apartment to drink Hawaiian Punch.) The school rumor mill was churning it out that she had been taken advantage of sexually assaulted.

So a walk to the precinct was in order.

Wait. Am I allowed to go there? Of course, my cell phone battery had died, so I had to use the school phone to call to ask my boss if I was allowed to go, like a third grader who forgot her permission slip.

Except I first realized I didn’t know my phone number. (So, not as good as a third grader.) I had to rifle through my New Employee Information Packet to figure out a way to get through, under the watchful eye of a skeptical, and I think, overly judgmental, receptionist.

My boss was out, so I spoke with another supervisor. The conversation was less than reassuring. “Yeah, you can go, but don’t spend all your time on this one case, you have other families.” Way to be where the client is! Also it’s 3:30 on a Friday, and I’m an hour away from the rest of my clients. Deal with it.

We went to the precinct, which is always an adventure. I hadn’t done that since I was little and my aunt dated a cop. Watching people report petty crime is pretty fun!

Faith and her mother went to talk to the officers in private, leaving me with four kids I had never met. I learned what schools they all went to, which My Little Ponies were their favorites, and three new Miley Cyrus songs. Or the same song over and over, I’ll never be sure.

At this point, my work day was over. I was off the clock, not getting paid. But the police said that a trip to the hospital was in order, so off we went.

Wait, am I allowed to do that?

This time I spoke with my actual supervisor, who said those words we’re all longing to hear. “You’re doing a good job. You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

Another lesson from that day: an ambulances is really the best way to travel in New York City traffic!

The hospital involved more waiting, more getting-to-know-you-getting-to-know-all-about-you, and more difficult questions. They asked if we were there for a full rape kit, or just an STD test and some prophylactic medication. Mom said, “just do everything” as though she were ordering the pu pu platter, but Faith decided against it.

I sat with the family in that waiting room, talking to nurses, doctors,and other social workers (real ones, who knew what they were doing and what their phone number was) until it was nearly ten p.m. and we were all starting to fall asleep. At that point I remembered that there was nothing more I could do, and said good bye.

I went home and cried for a while, over sadness for whatever the bell happened to this girl, and what she was going through, and from sheer exhaustion. My roommate brought me Cheez-Its, and I was back at work on Monday.

That day threw me into my job, and my profession, head-first. It also threw me into this family’s life. Hey, Faith, you can say nobody cares about you, but remember that day at the precinct?

It became a favorite family story for the kids, and something the mother always referenced when she talked about me appreciatively.

“Remember the first day we met? You were with us for like ten hours!” “We got to know each other so well that day!” “That ambulance was awesome!”

It was the first of many truly crazy, exhausting days. But it’s always good to have a reference point for hectic–is this really so bad? At least I’m not at the hospital! It taught me what being where a family is and sticking with them can do for you, and replaying that day reminds me of how I was when I started, and how not to get burned out.

And if nothing else, Cheez-Its can go a long way in getting me through.

Goldilocks’ School of Social Work (Caring Just Right.)

6 08 2012

There’s a phenomenon in the helping professions. You know when a philandering celebrity, or greedy financial…dude (I don’t have finances) says that the only thing they’re guilty of is “caring too much?” Social workers, teachers, mental health professionals, child protection workers, and the like, are at serious risk if that ever becomes a criminal charge. Though so often, caring too much isn’t sufficient. We have to care the most.

Everyone likes to be the best, right? We all want to win the gold. (Side note: might I pat Gabby Douglas on the head and put her in my pocket, even though she could kick my ass?)

I have run into this a few million times in my work.

At times, it’s with school social workers. Some make a particular effort to reach out to and involve the families, but some don’t. And with the ones that do, the parents often start ignoring their calls. As a result, they work primarily with the children. Twelve year old girls fighting with their mothers tend to err on the side of drama, and complaints about being unloved and unwanted. If you aren’t in the home regularly and don’t know the family, it might sound like emotional abuse.

Most social workers, and adults in general, are smart enough to discern abuse from teen angst. But some seem to have a vested interest in being the hero. You know, the only person in the Lifetime movie who believes the totally rational victim, while everyone else has seemingly gone insane?

Which leads to voicemails like this:

SSW: “I am extremely concerned about this child! She said her mother isn’t speaking to her. Why aren’t you answering your phone? We are having an emergency meeting in twenty minutes, I need you to be here!”

It’s one thing explaining to overwhelmed nineteen year olds that I have fourteen other families who also need my attention. When it’s a fellow professional in a similar situation…I don’t care for it.

Some want to feel like they’re the only one who can really forge a connection with this particular child. Like when your friend in high school was dating that total asshole, because she insisted that he wasn’t that way to her, she was the only one who could understand him? Yeah, like that.

After months of running away, drug use, missing persons reports, and pregnancy scares, a sixteen year old I worked with wound up in a diagnostic reception center. This is a short term, non-secure residential facility. Often a stopover on the way to residential treatment.

This girl needed help, but was an accomplished manipulator. She knew what everyone wanted to hear, and how to get what she wanted. (Trust me, I’d fallen for it for months!) After a week or so, I got a call from a social work intern. She asked if she could escort this girl to her previous placement, to pick up some belongings.

Provide her with a Metrocard, and someone who can’t do anything to stop her from running off, to get the things she wants on the other side of the city. I was, I think, understandably skeptical.

“I understand, but I think this is important for her. We’ve developed a good connection.”

Sigh. All right, intern. Not my call, not my funeral.

Her supervisor approved it (really) and the kid AWOLed. She would have done it sooner or later anyway, it wasn’t the intern’s fault. But I do think it’s something that happens when we don’t listen to each other.

“SocialJerk, how do you stay so perfect and avoid all of these pitfalls?” asks no one. Of course I’ve been guilty of this myself. I remember when a fourteen year old told her ACS worker, “I don’t deal with you anymore. I only talk to Miss SJ,  ’cause she’s my girl.”

Now, everyone likes to be the favorite, and this was tapping directly into my love of working with teens, confirming for me that I’m actually good at it. Also, I was not popular in junior high. Of course I knew that this child was being disrespectful, that her mother was allowing it, and that I needed to put an end to it. But I smiled a little on the inside. Even though, ultimately, being “her girl” didn’t prevent this kid from running away for days at a time, cutting school for months, and fighting in the streets.

A lot of the time, we’re not better with fellow social workers we don’t even work with. We say we want self care, but then we compete in the miserylympics. Try mentioning a mental health day, vacation, chance to read a book or watch a movie, or a momentarily small caseload, to a fellow social worker. We always feel the need to qualify it with, “I’m taking a day because I worked twelve hours unpaid overtime in the past three days, I have the flu, and I’m emotionally exhausted from facilitating two removals and running from three shootouts.”

Still, we get responses like, “Must be nice!” “Ugh, jealous. I’m working seventy hour weeks lately.” Or the backhanded, “You totally deserve it! I can’t wait til it’s my turn :/”

Sometimes it’s ok to just say “have fun” Or nothing. That’s ok too.

You don’t have to be the one who cares the most, or the only one who’s doing any work. There is no prize, believe me. I Googled it. We need to support each other in taking care of ourselves. There’s never been a statue erected in the honor of a social worker who died with the most saved up sick and vacation days.

And we’re all trying to do the same work, even if we’re doing it in different ways. Of course we might be working with a burned out, or just not terribly good worker at times. But I think we owe one another the benefit of the doubt, rather than assuming that we’re on our own, and have all the answers.

Now I have to get back to work. I haven’t had a vacation in months.

I have a 35 second nap penciled in for today at 3:02

18 06 2012

Social workers are always being told that we need to take time for ourselves. You know, to prevent burnout, so we can force another few years in the profession. (Sorry, it’s been a rough week.)  But it’s hard. We’re so busy during the workday. You’re running to home visits, school visits, child protection meetings, supervision, and whatever random things you get told to do throughout the day. There’s usually not even time for lunch. And I don’t know about you, but even when I can squeeze in a desperately needed break, I’m easily guilted out of it. I can’t sit here and bang out a game of Angry Birds to clear my head, listening to the productive typing of notes all around me!

Parents of toddlers often have trouble getting time for themselves as well. In her brilliant, flawless, laugh-til-you-cry-on-the-subway-or-pee-your-pants-if-that’s-your-thing book “Bossypants,” Tina Fey offered a plethora of tips. They include finishing your child’s dinner over the sink while she tugs on your pant leg and asks for it back, taking forty-five minute showers, and walking into the child’s room and forgetting why you went in there. As many of you know, my ultimate goal in life is to somehow be Tina Fey when I grow up. (I could grow up.) So this is how I’m starting. Adapted for social work, tips to take some time for yourself.

  1. Walk to home visits instead of taking the bus. No one has ever had a nice time on a public bus. Except, I suppose, that man that one of my teenage clients saw sniffing all the seats on the Bx42. He was enjoying himself. But for the rest of us normies, not so much. Take a stroll, if at all possible.
  2. Bathroom breaks. I recently mentioned, in another forum, that I have never once peed at work without at least briefly contemplating a toilet nap. Based on the response, I am not alone. This is the one break they can’t begrudge you. If anyone notices an excessive amount, threaten to expose your agency for running like a Nike sweatshop. The only downside is that people might think you’re pooping, and if you’re a young woman, news of your imagined pregnancy will travel quickly.
  3. Get “lost” on your way to home visits, provided time and neighborhood safety allow. “Oh, it’s on 174th? I walked all the way down to 170th! Silly me.” A little bonus exercise, and a few minutes to yourself. You need it.
  4. Exploit social workers inherent insecurities and obsession with the DSM-V. “Oh, I have school-visit-induced-stress-related-dysphoric-disorder. You haven’t heard of it? Everyone’s debating its inclusion. The only treatment is regular five minute yoga/meditation/Twitter and cheese doodle breaks.” Your coworkers and supervisors will go along with it, to avoid looking foolish.
  5. Make friends with the administrative staff. Getting on the good side of receptionists and secretaries is an age-old office tip. I say go one further. “Allow me to run to Office Max for you!” “I’d be happy to run out and get those stamps!” “Why don’t you put me down as an approved pick-up for your son’s day care?” You’ll get out for a minute, and you’ll never have to wait for your paystub, or get ratted out if you’re a few minutes late.
  6. Wait until a line forms to use the microwave. Oh, there are three people ahead of me making tea? (Of course there are. We’re so predictable.) Best to wait here and zone out for a minute, I don’t want to lose my spot.
  7. Make up a fake birthday. Wasn’t it your birthday last month? Oh well, it’s your half birthday, or everyone’s unbirthday, or you just finished paying off your student loans. (Hahaha, just kidding.) No social worker will question a few minutes off to eat cake.
  8. If all else fails, call in sick. They can’t prove anything.

Give me a minute to figure out how I can blame myself

19 04 2012

Everyone knows I have a work-appropriate non-sexual crush deep respect for my supervisor. She’s a gifted, knowledgeable social worker, and manages to be fun and have a great sense of humor while being a really fair boss. (And dammit, if I weren’t anonymous I could show this to her and totally lobby for some comp time.) Therefore, when she gives me advice, I take it seriously.

We also all know that I had a grand old time with my self-evaluation. However, that was only part of the process. My supervisor has to evaluate me as well.

Essentially, she thinks I’m pretty awesome. This is good, because a compliment from someone you admire is way better than a compliment from someone you know to be a jackass. (Like when Kanye West told me he liked my shoes.) But it’s an evaluation, you need something to work on. And nobody’s perfect.

So my area to improve? Not taking my work home with me. You know, not taking it to heart so much when things go wrong. Not being overly involved with my families. When bad things happen, not being so devastated that it impacts my work, now or in the long-term.

My supervisor admitted that she is still struggling with this. Probably because it’s impossible.

There’s not even a good consensus on what is and isn’t the right way to handle this. I mean, you need to maintain a professional distance. If you take every set back hard, and every struggle your families go through becomes personal, you’re not going to last. But, you know, you never want to be jaded. You need to care, or you’ll be terrible at this and won’t have empathy.

So care, but don’t care too much. You’ll know if you’re caring too much. You won’t really be able to do anything about it, because you’re in too deep, but you’ll know. If you’re not caring enough, you might realize it, but you won’t care. Because…you know.

When the topic of getting overly involved or caring too much comes up, people usually talk about self care. When we talk about self care, it’s usually meaningless bullshit. Not that self care (which, for the last time, my non-social work friends, is not  our euphemism for masturbation) isn’t important. It is. But everyone knows what works for them. When it’s discussed at an agency event, someone always tries to get me to meditate. No. I don’t meditate. I go to the bar I live above, hang out with my niece, listen to Freelance Whales or Mumford and Sons, write obnoxious blog posts, watch Arrested Development or A Very Potter Musical, or go to the gym. Oddly specific, I know. Did you write those down? Did they help you? No, because you have what works for you.

Anyway, self care is something you do continuously to keep yourself going at work. To avoid burning out. But it doesn’t address how involved is too involved. How you maintain a professional distance while having empathy and feeling, at least on some level, what your clients are feeling.

I realized how much of an issue this is for me particularly after one of my little boys was shot. It’s horrifying, even in the abstract, because that event was so wrong and against everything that should happen. The fact that my supervisor pretty much directed me to go home that day, because she knew I was no good to anyone, made me realize that this was going to be a struggle for me.

I happened to run into his thirteen year old sister in the neighborhood that day. She ran up to me for a hug. I could pretty much hear my casework professor’s voice ring in my ear. “Hugging a client? Unprofessional and confusing to the child. Is this about what you need or what she needs? This child needs boundaries reinforced.” (My casework professor was a known bitch.) But then I could also hear myself. “Who the fuck cares?” We both needed a hug.

My supervisor had talked to me about not overextending myself with this family. They had a ton of issues but the kids have an incredible amount of potential. They’re just so special, and so intelligent, and it kills me to think of some of them wasting it by not going to school or hanging out with gang member assholes. So I did a lot for them. I was always looking for extra ways to help. To a point that I’m pretty sure I’m invited to their guidance counselor’s wedding. Some families just hit you hard.

The problem is, you can’t make people change. I could make things easy for this mother, but I couldn’t make her put her children first. While I was running around killing myself, because I couldn’t stand the thought of something happening to these kids when they were supposed to be in school, or them being screwed over for life because they dropped out in the seventh grade, they didn’t mind all that much. So in addition to them still not doing what they need to do, I had the fun bonus of kind of starting to resent them.

I care deeply about this family, and I love those kids. I love all the kids I work with. I have boundaries. I don’t friend them on Facebook (I will admit to checking a girl’s Facebook, once, because I was afraid she was going to school one day for the purpose of fighting. Fortunately, her guidance counselor had checked it before I did.) I don’t initiate physical contact, though my teen girls are huggers and my toddlers are under the impression that I’m some sort of jungle gym.

But I call my kids sweetheart or shortie. I joke around with the moms. My teens and I have secret handshakes, and on occasion I buy them lunch. When they come in, I tell them how happy I am that they made it in, and I know that they believe me. I think about these kids when they’re not with me, and I worry about them and I’ve cried over them and for them more than once.

My bitchy casework professor would kind of hate all of this.

Friends and family members have a hard time understanding my job, and the hard to explain relationship I have to my families. I know they worry about the effect emotional involvement in my work affects me. So do I. I can have moments of feeling like I can’t do this anymore, but they can only be moments. If I didn’t love and care about my families, or worry about these kids when they leave my office, I’d be no good at this.

There’s some kind of balance between, “You got evicted? Well, probably should have followed through on the program I sent you to” and “You got evicted?! This is all my fault! I’ll stay at work until ten and pay to put you up in a hotel tonight!” Something that preserves my sanity (hey, I could have sanity) while getting people the help they need.

Maybe before I retire, I can figure it out.

Nobody worry, I’m back! Please hold the confetti.

27 03 2012

I’m sure this past week you all sat at your computers, despondent and tearing your hair out due to lack of SocialJerk updates.

No? Maybe a little? I’m being told you were actually all fine. Well, all right then.

Point is, I was gone. For a week. Vacation is important for people in stressful jobs. Unfortunately, “social worker” didn’t make it onto Tina Fey’s work related stress level chart, but I think we’re somewhere between “business guys who do stuff with money” and “managing a Chili’s on a Friday night.” We need to vacate every so often, in order to maintain our sanity.

So the boyfriend and I packed it up for a few days in Orlando. That’s right, Disney, Universal Studios, Pirate’s Cove mini golf, and lots of churros. It’s not what you would necessarily call a relaxing vacation, of course. First of all, the girl who wrote this went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I saw Hagrid’s hut, drank pumpkin juice, toured Hogwart’s, and pretty much turned into Kristen Bell meeting a sloth.

Plus there are crowds, heat, lines, and children. Some moments make you think, “aw, doing this with kids would be so fun!” But more make you think, “thank Jesus we’re the weird adults waiting way too long for the Peter Pan ride.”

You see a lot of sweet family moments, and a lot of nominees for the Terrible Parenting Hall of Fame. (It’s located in Cleveland.) Your two year old is having a tantrum after spending a fourteen hour day in direct sunlight with no nap? Why, that’s practically unheard of! You’re encouraging your seven year old to stomp on adult’s feet to cut to the front of the line at the Haunted Mansion? I can’t identify a single bad lesson there, good work!

But through all the exhaustion, all of the instances of wishing people wouldn’t try to sneak their kids onto rides they’re too little for, there’s one think you have to love–kids are enthusiastic. Whether it was the nine year old next to me on the Test Track at Epcot, yelling, “Now that’s what I call a roller coaster!” or the six year old next to me on the Tower of Terror gleefully informing me that she didn’t scream at all (I could not say the same) kids enjoy things to the fullest and let you know what they’ve achieved. They’re not worried about looking dumb.

It stops at some point. They become cool. Or at least, they want to be. And there’s nothing worse than a child trying to be cool. At one point, in Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, I looked to my left and saw a four year old dressed in a full Buzz Lightyear costume. He was in heaven and thought he looked amazing. Directly in front of me were three overindulged pre-teens, saying to their father, “Oh my God, this is just birds talking? Can we go? Whose idea was this?”

Yeah, it’s birds talking. It’s awesome, kid, and you’ll do better to enjoy it.

Because taking a vacation from thinking about work would actually make my brain explode, of course I had to relate it back. This probably most accurately sums up what I love about working with children, before they get prematurely interested in dating and therefore way too concerned about looking cool. They just think they’re good at everything. We always talk about what a person’s strengths are in social work. Ask an eight year old what they’re good at. I hope you have a while. All five year olds are good at drawing. Maybe two of my friends will say they are. Singing, dancing, acting, playing the kazoo, training dogs, doing imitations of cartoon voices? All viable career options for the under ten year olds I work with, based on their stunning talents.

Then I ask my teenagers. As much as I love them, the answers of what they’re good at are decidedly different. (Unless they’re trying to be brash and obnoxious, but you can tell they don’t really mean it.) “Um, I don’t know. What do you mean, what am I good at?” “Nothing, not really.” “I guess I do well in school?”

So, some of my favorites, in no particular order.

1.) Back at Anonymous Youth Center, I had the five to nine year olds out on the playground. A seven year old boy came up to me, unprovoked, to let me know, “I’m really good at running backwards. See, like this.”

He then proceeded to run. Backwards. I’ll be honest, it was mediocre. Because no one is good at running backwards. But he was thrilled to pieces and way proud of himself.

2.) More recently, at Anonymous Agency, one of my eight year old girls started talking about her dreams from the future after a counseling session. “Do you want to hear me sing? I want to be professional. Like, on The Voice.”

As we walked through the office, back to the waiting room where her mom was, past all of my coworkers whom she had never met, she sang something I now unfortunately know to be “Baby” by Justin Bieber. (I’m not linking to it. You’re welcome.) This kid sang with one finger on her ear, because that’s how Christina Aguilera does it.

3.) A six year old girl, when I was an intern, told me, “I think I want to be an archaeologist and a chef and a ballet dancer. But also, I should be an artist, because I’m the best at drawing.”

She owed it to the world.

4.) A nine year old boy insisted on reciting his times tables to me, because he was the only one who had memorized all the way up to twelve. It took a long time, but I was pretty damn impressed.

5.) “Breakdancing? I’m really good at breakdancing!” A ten year old boy, who of course got down on the ground to dance in the waiting room. He was undeterred by the fact that no one had mentioned breakdancing.

My social work advice for the week? If you’re feeling down and bored, try for a minute to look at the world and yourself through the eyes of a latency age child. There’s probably something to get excited about.

If not, find a child to laugh at. That should work too.

Age is nothing but a number. An ever increasing number

12 03 2012

When I was fresh out of a pineapple under the sea social work school, I was 25 years old. I worked for two years after undergrad as a child wrangler coordinator of an elementary after school program, so I wasn’t one of those brutally obnoxious 23 year olds, but I was close. I had also always been a year younger than everyone in my grade, either due to being a genius, or born on January 1st. My brother and most of my cousins are older than I am. In short, I’ve been rather accustomed to being one of the youngest, wherever I go, for quite some time now.

But of course, things change.

There’s a lot of turnover in social work, particularly in the field of child welfare. I mentioned recently that I’ve noticed that everyone in child welfare seems to have either been in the field for fewer than three years, or more than thirty. There’s not much in between. This isn’t terribly surprising. It’s a high burnout field. People get into it when they’re young and energetic. A lot of the time, that doesn’t last. For some, work in child welfare is like me every year the day after the New York City marathon. I think, why don’t I do that? It seems amazing and like lots of fun. Then I run for three miles and remember that I don’t really care for it.

Then there are others who just never seem to leave. Many are talented, and dedicated to the field. They rise within the agency and make changes from the top. Some just stick around long enough and wind up getting promoted because…seniority, or something. No one really knows.

I’m coming up on three years, so I guess we’ll find out which category I fall into.

My first year as an intern, I worked with homebound senior citizens. These are the people we ominously call the “oldest old.” 85 and up, for the most part. They looked at fresh-faced little SJ as though a fetus had been sent to their home. They asked how old I was and reminded me to wear a coat.

The next year, I began working with families. It seemed that all we talked about in supervision and in class was the fact that I, like many of my student contemporaries, appeared to be about 12. Would this be insulting or troubling to families? I mean, who is this kid, telling me how to raise my kids? Would the teens walk all over me because I’m obviously not a real grown up?

For the most part, it was never a terrible issue with clients. Most people seemed willing to take me on merit. What held me back was not my age, but my inexperience. I lacked confidence in my abilities, because you know, I didn’t have much in the way of abilities yet. (By the way, students–it’s fine. Everyone has to learn, and there’s no other way.)

It was, however, a bit of an issue for coworkers, at times. I had a supervisor who condescendingly told me she was too nervous to send me out on home visits, because I looked like I could be her daughter. Cool, I’ll just put my feet up, I guess. People felt free to ask how old I was, which I think is a little rude, unless you’re trying to set that person up on a playdate. My thoughts and opinions, or plans for my career, were often met with a laugh and an, “Oh, you’ll see how it is after a few years!” Will I? Tell me how it will be, soothsayer, I wish to know the future too!

Like I said, though, things change.

I’m 28 now. I’ve always looked young, but I’m old enough now that people who think I’m a teenager are either under eight, over 80, or a little deranged. Last week I did a school visit, and was scolded for not having my school ID. I patiently (or something) explained that I was a social worker, not a student, and was allowed up to the office after a minimally invasive metal detector wanding. (Imagine going through the equivalent of airport security every day, just to go to high school. Ugh.) When I got up to the guidance counselor’s office, I was immediately asked if I was Miguel’s mom.

I have no idea who Miguel is, but I know that he’s not my child, and that he’s a high school student. Meaning that it seemed that I had aged about twenty years on the staircase.

I’m not the youngest around the office anymore. There is a crop of 24 and 25 year olds starting up, and I’m suddenly in the strange position of being considered one of the seasoned workers. (Mmm, paprika!) These new workers are more idealistic and energetic than me. They might even be cuter than me…I’m pretty sure they’re not cuter than me. But it’s weird to no longer have that, hey, I’m the youthful new gal thing to fall back on. I’m legit now. People come to me with questions about paperwork and benefits, and very often I know the answers. They come to me for advice when they’re stuck with a client. The assumption there is that I know what I’m doing, which can be a little scary to live up to.

While I’m still mistaken for a teen or a parent during school visits, at some point it will only be parent. And that will make sense. Then I’ll know I’ve made it.

But I’m pretty sure I will freak the fuck out when I turn 30.