How to Deal with Case-Overload as a Social Worker and Carer

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.

Seek support

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.

Which Four Letter Word Best Describes Your Relationship with Work


Social workers and most employees use the word “love when we first start our new jobs. A regular pay schedule allows us to pay our monthly student loans when due. We learn and experience the difference between what the books say and practice realities. We get to “help people” which is the reason many of us went into the social work profession. The ability to help those in need feels good.

Our honeymoon with work lasts for about six months to a year. Everything is new and exciting. We get to know the intricacies of the inner workings of our organizations. The employer and employee become aware of each other’s interests, strengths, and quirks. The honeymoon is fun. The courtship continues. We love, love, love what we do and the organization we are with.

Then something happens. Longevity with an organization provides an awareness of the shortcomings. We begin to compare our goals, interests, and desires with that of the organization. When they do not match, we become frustrated and the relationship becomes strained.  In some instances, the relationship between the employer and employee becomes so frustrating that it sours. Think of a marriage that lasts although the two parties can no longer stand each other. Is your work relationship the same?

Are you a social worker who continues to work in a situation that is no longer satisfying? Have you started using four-letter words other than “love” or “like” to describe your relationship with work?

Many social workers cannot quit good-paying jobs. We need them to sustain our modest lifestyles. However, after five or more years on the job, some feel burned out from unmanageable workloads, hit or miss supervision, and political jockeying. Some may feel depressed because of vicarious trauma. Stress responses may be in overdrive causing edgy or anxious feelings when at work. A few social workers just check out emotionally, opting to go through the motions putting in their “eight” and doing no more than is necessary to get through.

Dissatisfaction with the workplace will continue until the social work honestly answers specific questions. Am I compelled to do this work? Am I demonstrating competence? How comfortable am I in the context of the work environment? These questions jump-start the re-tooling process for every social worker with over five years of experience.

What questions are you asking yourself?

How to Ace your Social Work Fieldwork Placement

Undoubtedly, social work fieldwork placements are a key component in social work education. Acting as an essential link between studies and practice, field placements can greatly impact the future functioning of students, and hence why students do their utmost to achieve a successful placement.

But how you may ask?

Throughout both of my fieldwork placements, I gained a number of skills and tips which helped me to cope with the demands and stress fieldwork placements brought with them.

Time Management

In the beginning of my fieldwork placement, I struggled. I was still finishing my dissertation, had to keep up with 8 cases, as well as attend lectures once every fortnight. I had no other choice, but to challenge myself to plan before hand and manage my time better.

My advice to you is to write an exhaustive list of all the things you have to do. You can either do this every week or once a month whichever you deem the most helpful. Prioritize the list accordingly and plan how much time you will need to spend on each task. Avoid getting stuck on single activities, if you feel like you cannot concentrate on a specific task, be flexible, and move on to another task. Every time you finish something, tick it off your list – it is so satisfying!

Supervision

You have probably learnt the importance of supervision during your lectures. Now is the time to actually make use of it. Do not hesitate to ask for supervision if you feel more guidance and information is needed. Additionally, ensure the time allocated for supervision is not used solely for case management. Use some of this time to discuss how you are coping with the workload, the feelings clients are evoking within yourself, your fears and safety concerns if any. Do not be afraid to use supervision as an added support. Whatever is said during supervision is confidential (obviously, if no harm will be caused to self or to others), so use this opportunity to process and assess your placement because hearing others’ problems is surely emotionally draining.

Research

I cannot emphasise enough the importance of doing research throughout the course of your placement. Be informed and read about the client group you are serving. Understand and be aware of the services available to them and the skills you can use when working with them. Fieldwork placements are a great opportunity for you to widen your knowledge, so make sure that you do this to the best of your ability. Both editorial and academic journal articles can be a source of information for you. Read them while commuting, watch videos while eating or cooking – educate yourself as much as possible because as they say, “you cannot pour from an empty cup!”.

Ask Questions

Your practice educator is not expecting you to know it all on your last day of placement – let alone your first day! Social work is a learning process, and we can never reach a point where we can say we know everything. Human beings are different and dynamic. Hence, why asking questions will only help you understand your client group and what is being expected to enhance your practice. Do not hesitate to tell clients that you are not sure about an answer while assuring them you will research a solution. Do not be afraid to ask for clarification, if you did not understand something. Ask your practice educator about the agency’s policies, regulations, procedures or any reference materials you can access when needed. Do not pretend you know it all – because you do not, nobody does!

Respect your Practice Educators and Tutors

You may not always agree with your practice educators and tutors, but ultimately they are the ones who will be assessing your progress. Starting on a wrong foot is surely not ideal which can derail the placement before it begins. Try to stick with their guidelines and even though you may feel at times it’s wasting your time on unnecessarily. I highly suggest you take a step back before complaining. I am not saying you should be passive, however, avoid arguments about word limit of essays, working hours or workload. Keep in mind your practice educators and tutors know what they are doing, so if they request something try to find a diplomatic path forward.

Do More than it is Expected

Give your placement your very best, and at times this may entail doing work that is not compulsory. Attend any meetings, conferences or opportunities taking place within your organisational framework. Observe how graduate social workers interact with their clients, chair a meeting and extend your comfort zone. Volunteer to take phone calls or intakes, even if this may mean staying for an extra hour. It is amazing how much you can actually learn from this! In the beginning of my first placement, I was terrified to answer the phone because I was always scared that I will stutter, or say something wrong. However, after sitting in the office and answering the phone for 10 weeks, I have gained a lot of confidence while talking to others over the phone.

Self-Care

Ultimately, as social workers, we have to preserve ourselves because we have minimal tools to protect ourselves from burnout. So while I highly suggest you do all the above, you also need to have an ‘off’ button. Learn to assess and identify your limits in order to detach yourself from placement related work for a few hours a day especially before going to bed. Dedicate some time for yourself, read a fiction, watch a funny video, take bath or go for a walk – do something that makes you feel good. Stop yourself from going to bed thinking about the following day and the long to-do list that you have waiting for you. Avoid thinking about action plans and give your mind a well deserved break.

Although sometimes you may feel unstoppable and very motivated, especially in the beginning you must remain mindful of your body limits because otherwise, you will be risking being burnt-out before actually stepping into the profession.

Let’s Talk About Burnout, Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma

Helping professionals do an excellent job of breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness. However, when we look in the mirror, we are not quite as good at applying those same stigma-fighting and self-compassion principles. There is a tendency for helpers to place the needs of others above their own needs.

We will fight incredibly hard to help others enjoy peace, health, and their human rights, but in order to do so we often compromise our own peace, health, and human rights. We spend our working days carefully listening to the needs of others, deaf to the screams of our own hearts and bodies. Ashamed of the humanness that has prevented us from living up to the SuperHero image of helping professionals, we are wary of sharing our own stories.

Unwilling to share our vulnerable selves, the stories we do release for public consumption are often so heavily edited the end result resembles little more than a “once upon a time” fairytale. Let’s not contribute to the all-too-common fairytales about what it’s like to work as a helping professional. Instead, let’s talk about how it really feels to face the darkest corners of human life (and death).

Let’s talk about burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Vicarious Trauma.

If we don’t, they will become the bogeymen that consume us. My own story of Vicarious Trauma began suddenly in 2006 when I was working as a Child Protection Officer. My ears and eyes were filled with the sounds and images of broken babies. My hands were filled with paperwork and my head was too full, too busy, to do anything except meet the deadlines that came thick and fast from all directions. The bogeyman that bit into me refused to let go and evolved into a full-blown eating disorder.

From 2008 to 2011, I was hospitalised twice and worked hard to heal my body. From 2012 to 2016, I worked hard to find the words I’d buried, match them with feelings, piece it all together and also work up the courage to share my precious story with strangers.

Without a doubt, the research and writing I undertook during those four years were the most agonising and significant steps I took toward recovery. I began by researching anorexia. Up until my mid twenties, I’d enjoyed healthy eating patterns and body image. How was it possible for such a person to suddenly stop eating? I started with the book “Eating Disorders in Adult Women” (edited by Julian Fuchs, 2008) and moved on to the wealth of research from Steven Levenkron.

There were many references to eating disorders stemming from Trauma, but I rejected the theory that my eating disorder was the result of this. Trauma was, I told myself, something that happened to survivors of war or whose lives had been threatened under the most horrific of circumstances. I refused to minimise the awfulness of their experience by including myself within their number.

Perhaps what happened to me was “just burnout”. I pulled out Christina Maslach and referred to her extensive research on the topic. Her descriptions of burnout were familiar but didn’t quite fit my symptoms. Again, there were plenty of references to Trauma. Fine. I piled my bedside table with all the classics on Trauma – Judith Herman, Peter Levine, Babette Rothschild – never believing I’d find myself living within their pages. I did. I knew about Trauma, of course. I’d learned the basics at university and had applied the theories when working with clients who’d experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, or childhood abuse.

Reading these books was a completely different experience and everything I thought I knew about Trauma was turned on its head. I read the theories as if I were reading them for the first time. Now, I didn’t just understand the words, I felt them and knew them to be true. Since releasing “Selfless: a social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery” I’ve been privileged to hear many people tell me about their own experiences of burnout, Compassion Fatigue, and Trauma.

It’s been wonderful to be part of this burgeoning web of storytelling and it has strengthened me more than I ever thought possible. It’s my dearest wish that my book will start a conversation about how to improve the support we provide to our frontline helping professionals. There is so much more that can be done. Let’s show how much value we place on the essential services they provide.

96 Percent of Social Workers Want Mobile Technology

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How important is mobile technology in social work? We wanted to learn more so we surveyed members of the National Association of Social Workers and asked two questions, “Do you think mobile technology would help you do your job?” and, “Is mobile technology for social workers a priority for your organization?” The results are in and we found that they confirm our belief in the important role that technology can play in a social worker’s life.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (96%) answered yes to the question, “Do you think mobile technology would help you do your job?” On the flip side, only 55% think that mobile technology is a priority in their organization. This means that while many social workers or supervisors think mobile technology would help social workers perform their jobs, they don’t think their organization is focused on providing the tools they need. This type of conflicting ideology can impact morale and ultimately lead to social worker burnout.

   

We firmly believe that mobile tools can help adult and child protective services (CPS) social workers overcome everyday hurdles like these:

1. Time Spent on Paperwork

As one CPS supervisor put it, “You probably spend one-third of your time with families, and two-thirds of your time documenting everything that you’ve done.” Social workers become resigned to losing valuable time trying to work around paper-based processes, having to track down and locate paper files.

2. Accessing Information in the Field

In 2012, worldwide mobile access reached 87%. Between 2011 and 2016, mobile data traffic is expected to grow by 18%. Despite hauling stacks of information with them into the field, sometimes social workers find themselves without the necessary forms or information. Accessibility is not only possible for social workers, it’s critical.

3. Limited Time with Families and Children

CPS caseloads across the country are increasing, but the number of social workers is not. Naturally this leads to spending less time with families and children. This places a heavy burden on agencies and workers, putting families in crisis at even higher risk.

4. Burnout

Social workers are at high risk of burnout and low job satisfaction. Turnover and burnout, while obviously disturbing for social workers, also places a tremendous burden on agencies and the families they serve. Costs of staff turnover are estimated to be between 1/3 and 2/3 of the worker’s annual salary.

5. Data Collection and Quality

The data collection processes and systems created at the state level are designed to collect data in order to meet important state and federal reporting requirements. This often doesn’t sync up with the way social workers work. Because of this, social workers find themselves asking clients to repeat information, which can negatively impact productivity.

We’ve seen that mobile technology designed for social workers can enhance the quality of social work and ultimately give social workers more time to spend with families, which is why social workers became social workers in the first place.

To learn more about how mobile technology can help social workers overcome five common hurdles, download our business brief, 5 Hurdles Blocking Social Worker Productivity and How to Overcome Them.

Burnout: Who’s Taking Care of the Care Takers?

 

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Stressors are a given in the helping professions such as social work, teaching, and nursing which can often lead to burnout. These can include intense and long work hours, low salaries, mismanagement, lack of appreciation and support, lack of job autonomy and security, lack of professional development and growth opportunities, politics (both interagency and governmental), and even personal risk at times. As a result it’s highly important to establish and implement procedures that reduce and/or eliminate stressors in order to prevent burnout and ultimately employee turnover which negatively impacts the organization and those served. 

Burnout is preventable. However, helping professions haven’t typically focused on their employees in the same way they’ve focused on their clients. Reducing and eliminating the stressors that contribute to burnout would ultimately require a total revamping of society. Many of the standards set by organizations are established by outside sources that are often disconnected from the reality of service provision.

This can lead to organizations placing a greater priority on those standards rather than addressing and supporting the needs of their employees, which also directly affect the needs of those they are helping. In an attempt to meet particular standards, organizations often have limited resources to reach their objectives. This can manifest as low salaries as well as significant overtime due to limited staffing due to limited funding while occurring within a societal framework that often fails to provide sufficient vacation time, healthcare, or other programs to support well being.

Contemplating a complete overhaul of society is overwhelming and contributory factor in creating the circumstances for burnout. There are many protective factors helping organizations and employees as individuals can do to promote change. Many in the helping fields advocate for others as individuals and overall societal change, but often have difficulty advocating for themselves. Some of this is a result of societal traditions and some of it is a result of a lack of education on the issues that directly impact them. This is particularly evident in regards to pay.

Employees in the helping professions are often underpaid and since money equals value in our society this communicates how little our society values the services these individuals provide.  Of course most don’t go into their chosen field to make a ton of money. However, if one has a major financial burden due to the profession they chose, this can contribute to burnout. At a societal and organizational level, those in helping professions need to advocate not only for higher pay, but also shorter work hours and increased vacation time.

Research has demonstrated that working overtime has a direct correlation to decreased productivity while employing flexible hours has a direct correlation to increased productivity.  Such policies also promote overall well being in all aspects of life, therefore, they should be taken into consideration and ample time off should be provided to recuperate. This could also provide opportunities for more jobs in these fields thus decreasing the unemployment rate.

These changes alone could move the meter tremendously towards eradication of burnt out helping professionals. Additionally, there are smaller changes that can be made until organizations and society buys in to the value of taking care of its employees and citizens.  Since increased job autonomy and social support within organizations are directly linked to increased job satisfaction and decreased stress, organizations should create an environment that promotes this. Supervisors need to be mindful of providing praise as well as allowing room for employees to create aspects of their job duties.

Many enter into their chosen field passionate about certain areas and when they aren’t allowed to be involved in their passions, lose enthusiasm for their job.  Encouraging employees to incorporate their passions can significantly improve job satisfaction and decrease burnout. As well, creating promotional opportunities along with salary increases adds to employees’ motivation to be productive and satisfied. Along with all of this, providing opportunities for professional development in areas of employees’ interests will promote growth that will benefit both the individual workers and the organization. Included in this should be stress management workshops because no matter how many of these changes are made, stress will still exist in the helping professions.

Employees and organizations need to constantly educate and empower themselves in order to most effectively advocate for those they help, their field, and of course, themselves. At first, it may appear selfish to advocate for oneself when many working in helping professions have been socialized to operate within society’s parameters. By instituting protective factors for helping professionals, it will not only benefit the employees and their fields, but society as a whole will also reap the benefits. It’s time to stand up for health and well being for all including those who traditionally provide such opportunities of empowerment.

Is Your Candle Burning from Both Ends: Examining Burnout and Self-Care

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“You can’t help others until you first help yourself”. “Don’t burn your candle from both ends”.

I used to hate those cliches, but when it comes to therapist wellness, it’s true.

My first experience with burnout happened just 3 short months after graduating with my Master’s degree. I move across the country, and I dived head-first into the real-world of therapy. My eyes were opened to a whole new world of disillusionment that I could never have been prepared for.

I experienced an episode of burnout, and I know it won’t be my last.  Along the road to getting my licensure as a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), I encountered things that would make even the most resilient people burn out, if not get a little crispy around the edges.

  • I saw ethics violations and fraud that hurt clients and the entire mental health system is full of corruption.  I reported a provider to a licensing board, lost my job and relocated.
  • I’ve had 5 jobs in just over 2 years. I worked overtime at roughly $15 an hour with student loan debt weighing heavily in the back of my mind. One agency I worked for, closed suddenly overnight after a few weeks of my pay checks bouncing. I also had to pay for weekly supervision in order to keep my associate license.
  • I worked in homes with roaches, smells and sights that seemed to be right out of horror movies. I saw the effects of child abuse and sat back and felt hopeless when CPS couldn’t help. Poverty, inequality and suffering were in my face every day.
  • I got physically and verbally attacked by clients. I was providing services in rural areas where guns were prevalent and cell-phone service was not.
  • I frequently felt undermined by administrators. I was told that the letters after my name didn’t matter, even though I had worked so hard for them. I was told I needed to “earn my stripes” even though I had education, experience, and a license.
  • I was on-call for emergencies 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I came to associate my ringtone with crisis and would cringe when I heard it.

These things do not make me a martyr. These are the typical experiences of a new therapist.  I share them in the hopes of increasing awareness, decreasing the isolation and shame other therapists feel. I hope to open the door to discussions about how we can make systematic changes to make things better.

Improving the workplace for counselors, and in turn, improving services for clients with mental health needs will be a forever on-going process. This topic could easily be it’s own post, book, or series of books.

In the mean time, how will you stay healthy, engaged, and able to serve your clients?  Here is what has helped me along the way:

  • Embracing the inevitable and learning to recognize the signs of burnout. Burnout will happen. Be ready and keep a look-out.  It can mean feeling exhausted, numb, hopeless, helpless or depressed.  It could mean feeling anxious, panicked and unable to sleep.  Other signs include relief when clients cancel sessions, dreading going to work in the morning, client-blaming, or being sarcastic, cynical and resentful.
  • Receiving lots of supervision from other therapists.  One-on-one direction from therapists with more experience than me was priceless.  Group supervision also helped decrease my sense of isolation and boosted my confidence.
  • Becoming a regular therapy client. I believe therapy is effective for helping people cope with a stressful life.  That is why I’m a counselor, and it is also why I am not afraid to seek counseling for myself.
  • Taking steps toward basic self-care. Keep eating, exercising and sleeping habits healthy. Avoid alcohol and drugs.
  • Maintaining relationships with family and friends. Build your social support network. Stay connected to your community.
  • Taking time off. Get out of town or turning off the phone. It’s ok to un-plug and relax, even if it is just for a few minutes.
  • Seeing the big picture.  Every therapist has a vision and a reason they entered this field.  Remind yourself of it.
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