If you are a social worker, you probably know better than anyone just how much pressure has been put on professionals since the Covid-19 crisis began. It appears that more than 70% of children’s social workers are struggling with caseloads since the pandemic outbreak according to recent data.
Only 4% said their workload was ‘comfortably manageable’, whilst 24% said it was ‘mostly manageable’.
These statistics make it clear that to the vast majority, the work given to social workers is unmanageable and unrealistic. On top of this, workers are met with additional hardships such as minimal PPE (personal protective equipment) and a lack of clarity from governments about guidelines for safe practice during the outbreak.
Has the Rise in Social Workers Made it Easier?
Believe it or not, according to government data, September 2019 saw the highest record of children’s social workers in the UK. The number of agency workers also grew by 10% over this period. You would think with this surge in employment, there would be an ease on the caseloads given to professionals. However, recent feedback says otherwise.
With more and more investment going into the social work field, influential figures are beginning to realize the vital role they play in supporting both young people and families throughout the pandemic.
So, why then does it continue to be such a stressful area with both high turnovers and increasing amounts of staff going off sick due to burnout?
Common Threats to Social Workers
After finishing the arduous and complex training to become a fully qualified social worker, many are unprepared for the level of exhaustion and work expected of them. This is ironic, as the last thing you want is to make helping others such a priority that your own mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing takes the hit.
This leads to what many call burnout, which unfortunately is a commonly used phrase for those in social work.
What is burnout exactly? It’s the process of struggling to operate, becoming more closed from input, increasingly resigned, irritable, and acquiring a tendency to become angry easily. Sadly, when a social worker reaches this stage, they may have to take extensive time off, or even worse are forced to resign or get fired.
On top of this, the high expectations required alongside poor supervision or mentorship given to social workers makes it difficult to withhold the demanding role and the emotional exhaustion it brings.
Moreover, self-care is a substantial element to burnout prevention and should be taken seriously by all those working in areas that can be emotionally and mentally draining.
Ways to Prioritize Self-care as a Social Worker
To avoid overload and burnout completely, researchers have found that it is particularly helpful to prevent things such as compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary traumatic stress.
By taking self-care seriously, professionals can assess their own needs and ensure they are being met without feeling guilty. From finding supportive mentors, a positive peer group, pursuing personal goals and hobbies to relaxation, there’s plenty social workers can do to increase their wellbeing. Here are some ideas:
Prioritize your comfort in and out of work
Try to eat lunch at your desk as little as possible, invest in a comfortable chair, fill your office or desk with your favorite plants that refresh your spirits. If it helps to play relaxing music that puts your mind at ease while you type up reports, then that is what you need to do.
Get into healthy routines
Conditioning your mind and body to carry out habitual activities that ground and center you are a crucial part of self-care. Before reaching the office for example, can you find one hour to go to the gym? Are you a church-goer who finds peace from worship? If so maybe you can schedule a time to visit after your day is finished. It depends on what self-care strategies work for you personally. Finding these and sticking to them will help prevent burnout.
Within the workplace, there should be access to mentorship or advice you can seek out. Also, ensure you surround yourself with a peer group that you feel comfortable opening up to. Learn to check in with each other and personally debrief after an intense case to process what happened and figure out your next steps.
As we can see, social work is never easy, and unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before things become balanced for the majority of professionals. However, taking personal ownership over your self-care is fundamental if you want to avoid burnout and continue serving your community as a successful social worker.
Trigger Warning: A Chinese Father Saved More Than 300 People at Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge
“I understand these people. I know they are tired of living here. They have had difficulties. They have no one to help them.” – Chen Si
Since the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge was first built in 1968, an estimated 2,000 people have died from suicide involving the bridge. According to data from 1995-99, in China’s first national survey in 2002, death from suicide accounted for 3.6 percent of the country’s total deaths. During that period of time, 287,000 Chinese people died from suicide every year, putting the average suicide rate at 23 per 100,000 people.
Chen Si, also known as The Angel of Nanjing, has been patrolling this bridge every Saturday for more than 20 years and has managed to save more than 300 people from death by suicide. He is a 52-year-old father from Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu province of the People’s Republic of China. Following the loss of a close relative to suicide, Chen Si has taken up this cause because someone needs to.
A Long History
The relationship between mental illness and suicide is controversial in China. Those who follow traditional Chinese philosophy are not encouraged to express their feelings, nor are they encouraged to expect their environment to change to suit their needs. Therefore, intense misery and feelings of despair may go unrecognized, and suicidal symptoms are not easily detected by Chinese medical professionals. In fact, many doctors working in rural areas do not understand the symptoms of depression and often receive low salaries, which discourages more doctors from entering the mental-health field.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, China’s suicide rate in the 1990s was 20 per 100,000 people. In the 1990s, female suicides were higher than male suicides by a factor of three. While China remains one of the few countries with a higher suicide rate among women than men, recent data shows that these disparities have evened out. In 2016, suicide rates among Chinese men and women came up almost even at 9.1 per 100,000 men and 10.3 per 100,000 women. Overall, China’s suicide rate in 2016 was 9.7 per 100,000 people, which was among the lowest globally.
A 2002 survey also revealed that 88 percent of females who died from suicide used agricultural pesticides or rat poison. Although China initially eliminated highly toxic pesticides to improve the safety of its farm produce, the elimination also had a substantial impact on the reduction of deaths from suicide among women. Research shows that men tend to attempt suicide through violent means such as hanging, whereas women tend to attempt suicide with medication. Overall, most studies indicate a decline in suicide rates among all gender and regional categories in China. The studies also recommended targeted suicide prevention programs, particularly for people in rural areas.
Women’s freedom, urbanization, and decreased access to toxic pesticides are key reasons behind the decline in suicide rates. According to Jing Jun, a professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, “female independence has saved a lot of women.” The founding of New China in 1949 in combination with the opening-up policy in the late 1970s and the continuous growth of China’s economy has led to more equitable opportunities for women. Additionally, urbanization removed certain social constraints leading to more freedom for women. For instance, escaping an abusive partner or household may be easier in a city than in a small village.
Despite a decline in death by suicide rates in China, this is an area that we should pay more attention to. Chen Si acts as an angel, but he cannot do this work alone. He hopes that officials consider building a net across the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge to prevent deaths by suicide.
The Crisis Intervention Centre, the first of its kind in China, was established by Nanjing Brain Hospital to provide psychological advice and support to Chinese people. The Centre also has a hotline, which can be reached at 862583712977.
The Lifeline Shanghai at (400) 821 1215 is a free, confidential, and anonymous support service that is open 365 days a year from 10am-10pm GMT+8.
Facebook and other social media platforms also offer many virtual support groups for individuals experiencing hardship. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 is a 27/4, free and confidential resource to support people in distress, prevention, or in an active crisis. Users should utilize the translate function on these web pages to adjust for language barriers, if necessary.
A 10-Year-Old Girl in Kenya Learns Coding in Milwaukee–Virtually.
The pandemic and a year of virtual schooling had an unexpected benefit for a little girl in Kenya who connected with Girls Who Code at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“I use the computer for school, and I wanted to understand more about how they work,” said Elsie Maingi, who is 10 years old and lives in Nairobi.
However, computer classes in Kenya were geared to high school students and business people and were usually quite expensive, said her mother, Lilian Wangechi.
So in the fall of 2020, they turned to Google and found the free Girls Who Code program at UWM. Because of the time difference, Elsie got up at 2 a.m. for every class during that semester and the spring 2021 semester.
Encouraging young women
The national Girls Who Code program encourages young women of middle and high school age to get involved with computer sciences, according to Christine Cheng, an associate professor of computer science who launched UWM’s program in 2016.
“When we knew we were going to be online in the fall of 2020, it was a blessing in disguise because it allowed many people who were not living near UWM to attend classes,” she said, “but Elsie was the only one from a different country.”
Sammie Omranian, a graduate student and teaching assistant who manages UWM’s program, said she was amazed at Elsie’s persistence. “It was so surprising for me. I knew that she was from Kenya, but never thought about the time difference until her teacher, Anahita, told me.”
Anahita Qashqai, a graduate student who is one of the program’s teachers, also encouraged Elsie to overcome her shyness about using her English. Qashqai told her that English was also her second language since she grew up speaking Farsi. Another student piped up that her first language was Spanish. By the next class, Elsie had turned on the camera, unmuted, and was chatting away with her new friends and classmates from across the world.
“After that she felt more involved and engaged,” Omranian said. After falling a little behind for the first session because of the language concerns, Elsie quickly caught up. “Elsie was the only student who completed everything 100%,” Omranian said.
‘Awe for the amazing opportunity’
When the second class finished in the spring of 2021, Omranian sent Elsie the certificate and tote bag that all the students received. It took a few months to get to Kenya, but Elsie and her mom were so excited to get it that they sent a photo and a thank-you note.
“Today Elsie received her certificate from GWC and I can tell that it’s one of her best days,” Wangechi wrote in an email to Omranian. “I look back at the year 2020 and am at awe for the amazing opportunity my daughter got at your program. She had always wanted to understand how computers work and her dream came true.”
The UWM program was the perfect answer to their needs, she added, with the only requirements being an internet connection and the ability to go to class early in the morning.
“The program has opened a new frontier for Elsie that is boundless and she knows that her wildest dreams can come true. This is an experience as a parent that I could never have replicated,” Wangechi wrote. “We say AHSANTE (THANK YOU) to everyone who made this possible – the tutors, program coordinators and the donors.”
What is Girls Who Code?
Girls Who Code is a national program designed to encourage young women to enter computer sciences and other STEM fields.
In 1995, 37% of computer scientists were women. Today, it’s only 24%, according to Christine Cheng, an associate professor of computer science who launched UWM’s Girls Who Code program in 2016. The percentage will continue to decline if we do nothing, she told NPR station WUWM in an interview. “We know that the biggest drop-off of girls in computer science is between the ages of 13 and 17.”
UWM’s program attracts between 50 to 60 girls each semester, and offers three levels, depending on the students’ previous experience. The program is open to young women in middle and high school, though the majority are middle school age.
Graduate students in computer science and engineering are the teachers, along with some volunteers. Several young women who have competed the program have returned as volunteers, Cheng said.
While the program hasn’t had the resources to do a formal assessment of its impact, organizers do hear success stories from former students and their families. Makenzie Johnson completed the program in 2019, taking classes from the middle of her sophomore year to high school graduation.
Her mother, Tanika Davis, saw the national founder of Girls Who Code on MSNBC several years ago, but there were no chapters in Wisconsin at the time. She kept checking and eventually found UWM and Marquette had started chapters.
“Makenzie has autism and ADHD, but she was always good with computers and I knew that coding would expose her to see if that was something she was interested in and would do well in. It worked out really well,” Davis said.
Makenzie is now studying IT and software development at Milwaukee Area Technical College, with an eventual goal of becoming a graphic designer. She is also part of a program called Islands of Brilliance that helps people with developmental disabilities.
“Her mentors at Girls Who Code were great and really helped her thrive,” Davis said. “She felt like she was one of the gang. It was just a wonderful, wonderful experience with a diverse group of girls.”
Emma Maertz, a former student who is coming back as a volunteer in the program, said Girls Who Code is where she explored her love for coding and the program gave her the confidence to learn more elsewhere.
For this coming fall, Cheng and Omranian have decided to offer a combination of online and in-person classes.
Easy Strategies and Accommodations for Behavioral and Mental Health Needs in Learning Enviorments
The numerous accommodations and modifications that teachers make for students often amount to a lengthy list. These adjustments can involve altering not only instruction but also lesson materials, which tend to exhaust much of a teacher’s planning time. While circumstances, symptoms, and needs vary from student to student, there are some of the best “universal” practices that teachers can employ when a student is impacted by a medical condition, without causing a disproportional amount of stress to the teacher.
Symptom: Vision issues
Symptom: Working memory/memory processing difficulties
Symptom: Executive functioning difficulties
Symptom: Fine motor issues
Symptom: Behavioral issues
The classroom environment is filled with a countless array of personalities, abilities, and levels of motivation. Add to that the various medical considerations or chronic illnesses that students might experience and teachers no doubt feel stressed about making sure every learner receives what he or she needs in order to be academically successful. To ensure that students’ accommodations are met, every student must be provided with differentiated, personalized learning experiences to foster intrinsic motivation and appropriate levels of challenge.
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