I’ve been a qualified Social Worker for six years. During this time, I have experienced great highs and great lows in what is a difficult and rewarding career. I have worked across both adults and children and young people services.
One of my most challenging periods of my working career was actually at the beginning and it came about when I was ‘fast tracked’ into management. I was fast tracked for three reasons:
1) I was considered to be a ‘good’ Social Worker (whatever that means!),
2) I had ‘survived’ front-line practice for 12 months. Apparently, this was a major achievement as most only lasted six to eight months, and
3) Poor retention of staff – due to a combination of burn out and poor leadership/management.
How did this come about?
To be honest, I felt slightly pressurised in applying for this position by managers/senior managers. I had only been qualified for 12 months and at the time I felt I lacked relevant Social Work experience. Furthermore, I had no previous experience of management or leadership roles. I hadn’t even managed a Student Social Worker as a Practice Educator.
However, at the time I was made to feel that if I didn’t apply it would have a negative impact on my future career aspirations and would ‘look bad’ within the Organisation. Trust me when I say that I now view such thoughts as ridiculous and hugely regrettable. I also believe that it flies in the face of Social Work Standards, Ethics and Conduct – particularly where we should challenge, where appropriate, and be accountable for our own practice/development.
But I was relatively inexperienced and felt I needed to please others.
At the time I believed I had no chance of getting the job. But little did I know that due to a combination of poor staff retention and a very poor reputation of the team, that I would be the only applicant.
During the interview I didn’t do particularly well, but low and behold I received a phone call later that evening offering me a Practice Manager role. I accepted and literally began within a three week turn around. As a Practice Manager, I was accountable and responsible for a group of seven Social Workers and four Support Workers. The longest serving practitioner in my group had only 18 months of front-line work under her belt.
What followed for the next six months can only be described as the most difficult period of my career so far…I was way out of my depth!
I felt I was only ever one step ahead of the staff and in some cases several steps behind! This did not fill them with confidence in my ability to offer them sound advice. As such, they would (and rightly so) question my decision making skills… How could I possibly offer them guidance or advice, without the relevant experience or knowledge? In an effort to address my significant deficiencies, I spent most evenings and weekends reading and learning the latest policies, procedures, guidance and legislation.
This only contributed to the demise of my personal relationships. For the first time, I began to feel depressed. I remember feeling anxious on Saturday evenings for the following Monday!
However, at the time I believed this was a small price to pay as I continued to feel as though I was letting my staff down. Like I was single handedly impeding on their development as practitioners. I felt as though I was adding to their work related stress. I offered no real advice or support. Most days, I had at least one staff member cry. They would offload due to a combination of work timescale pressures and how work was impacting on their emotional well-being. As such, I never once told them as to how I was feeling, like I needed to portray a sense of invincibility.
During my personal supervision, I attempted to highlight my deficiencies and that I was struggling – professionally and personally. What was the response from my line manager? To tell me that by me being in the role was better than having no one in the role. This was not sound advice and it subsequently contributed to me feeling further isolated and depressed. For the first time, I questioned my ability and why I had chosen Social Work.
I started to burn out…This couldn’t go on! I was signed off from work for work related stress. I let everyone down, including myself!
Road to recovery!
I was signed off for four weeks. During this time, I saw a friend who happened to be a therapist. Initially I found opening up tough.
But, through the process of critical self-awareness and reflection, I began to feel a sense of power in my decision making again. This was something that had previously been lacking in my career, particularly as a manager. My own resilience subsequently developed and I started to feel like a Social Worker again.
I made the decision: I wasn’t going to return as a manager. I was offered an ultimatum, return to the management role or resign… I opted for the latter. Initially, I was scared as to what this would mean for my career. But, thankfully, I was successfully appointed as a Social Worker in a team with a good reputation. I have never looked back!
Since, I’m happy to report that I have experienced what I consider good leadership and management qualities. Skills that I struggled to demonstrate as a manager due to my limited experiences. Although, I am now in a much better and supportive environment to aid this development, I will forever feel as though I let my staff down!
So, what learning can others take from my experiences?
- Never feel you need to apply for a role as a result of being pressurised by others – whether managers or decision makers.
- You cannot know everything – I’ve learnt that the best staff are not those who think they know everything. It is those who understand their weaknesses as well as their strengths.
- You are human… you will make mistakes. Learn from me, accept it, you are not invincible… Use Peer support!