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.”

3
2
1

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.





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.