I’ve been a qualified Social Worker for just over six years, working primarily within Children’s Services. Throughout my career, it’s safe to say that I have experienced some fantastic highs and I’m a very proud practitioner; yes, the role is very challenging, but it is also very rewarding.
However, one of my most challenging periods arose after my first year of practice; I was ‘fast tracked’ into a management role.
To be honest, I felt slightly pressurised in applying by my managers/senior managers. Yes, I was interested in a future in management, but I was very inexperienced as I had only been qualified for 12 months; I lacked relevant experience and had no previous experience of management or leadership roles. I hadn’t even supervised 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 Service. 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 values, standards 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. I initially thought I had no chance in getting the job. But little did I know I was the only applicant.
Whilst the interview didn’t go particularly well, I received a phone call later that day offering me the management role. I accepted and began within a three week turn around. As a 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.
I was way out of my depth
What followed for the next six months can only be described as the most difficult period of my Social Work career. I felt I was only ever one step ahead of my staff and in some cases several steps behind. Rightly so, this did not instil them with confidence in my ability to offer informed decision making.
How could I possibly offer them guidance or advice, without the relevant experience or knowledge? To address this, I spent most evenings and weekends working; reading and learning the latest policies, procedures, guidance and legislation on how best to support Social Work Practitioners. This only contributed to the demise of my personal relationships. For the first time, I began to feel depressed; I would often get anxious on Saturday evenings for the following Monday.
I started to burn out
However, at the time I believed that these feelings were a small price to pay as I tried frantically to develop my management skills and knowledge. I constantly felt I was letting them down but instead of being honest with them, I felt I needed to portray a sense of invincibility.
During my personal supervision, I attempted to highlight my deficiencies and that I was struggling both professionally and personally. My managers response came as a surprise; I was told that me being in the role was better than having a vacancy to fill. This only further contributed to my anxiety and for the first time I had doubts about Social Work.
I started to burn out…This couldn’t go on. Subsequently, I was signed off on sick leave due to work related stress. I let everyone down, including myself!
Road to recovery
Whilst I was off, 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 growing sense of power in my decision making and control over my actions. This was something that had previously been lacking in my role as a manager. I started to understand the importance of self-care and work-life balance. This gave me energy; my passion for social work started to burn once more.
Returning to work
After four weeks on sick leave, I took the decision to return to front-line practice. My Service was hugely supportive in my return. They understood the reasons for me leaving in the first place and had developed ‘internal mechanisms’ to address concerns raised and made sure that they wouldn’t reoccur. I was given a new manager and started to practice in a different area within the County… and I have never looked back!
I’m really pleased to say that I now feel hugely supported in my role (now a Senior Practitioner). Also, I am now undertaking a management and leadership course and I’ve had a number of Student Social Workers (I’m also a Stage 2 Practice Educator) that I helped develop.
Social Work Progression Pathways
I am now reconsidering a role into management as I feel I have the right amount of experience both in practice and supporting staff development. However, no matter what happens I will forever feel as though I let staff down in my first management role.
My final thought about my experience is that I should’ve challenged those that wanted to ‘fast track’ my career. It is right to say that not all Social Workers can be good or effective managers. But I felt that, with limited experience and little support, I was contributing to staff anxiety and made complex situations worse.
However, I do believe that services now understand the importance of investing in the professional development; Specifically, Social Work Progression Pathways, which significantly limits or reduces the feelings of being ‘thrown in at the deep end’. Long may this trend continue to develop.
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.
- 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.
- We are all humans – We will make mistakes. Learn from me, accept it, you are not invincible… Use Peer support and develop self-care.
This was completed by a Senior Social Worker, who wishes to remain anonymous. This is part of our Social Work Stories Series, if you’d like to contribute, please contact us at email@example.com