There is a saying that goes “people leave managers and not organisations”. For me, this is nowhere more relevant than within the Social Work and Social Care Sectors. Now, let me make it clear here, for the most part of my Social Work Career it has been a rewarding and supportive profession and one in which I am proud to be associated with. Obviously not losing sight to the fact that it is also extremely challenging and tough.
However, there has been a time in my career where I have been extremely anxious and was suffering from ‘burn out’. I developed self-doubt, a lack of confidence and the believe that I could no longer do or cope as a Social Worker. As a result, I was consumed with the thought that I was letting my service users down. I am sure this will resonate with a number of my Social Work and Social Care colleagues across the world.
So, how did this come about? Well, for me, it was initially a time of great excitement. I had recently moved to a new team in a new area. I was excited about the prospects of developing my knowledge base and further learning within a different field of Social Work practice. I wanted to utilise the skills I had developed to support the team and, in turn, promote better outcomes for those that we supported on a daily basis.
However, I quickly began to learn that management within this organisation often demonstrated a severe lack of empathy for front-line Practitioners. They would often share conflicting or very ambiguous language/information, which offered no real direction. Practitioners became confused as a result and began to question their ability to make decisions and work autonomously (which is a key ingredient to any good front-line worker). Management were reluctant to co-work or complete front-line work to support staff. There was no emphasis on promoting or rewarding good practice. Moreover, management only became ‘involved’ if there were issues relating to a piece of work or the Practitioners performance. This undermining management style was by the very definition micro focused.
For me, I was only ever given snippets of information and therefore felt that I could not offer a holistic service. This caused me considerable anxiety because, as a Social Worker, I was not being offered any real chance to develop my skills. This was the trigger for me developing a lack of confidence and the thought that I was not offering service users a service that was the best that I could offer.
Not only did my professional ‘self’ suffer, my personal life did too. I worked more Sundays than I care to share. Relationships suffered – both friends and family – as I was ‘constantly working’. I was often in the office for 6am to catch up on the previous day’s work and would stay until late in the evening. In fact, it was common place to see my colleagues order takeaways in the evenings because they could not get home in time for tea. It was also common place for more than half of the front-line staff to be on medication for stress related issues – all linked to the workplace. This was further epitomised when I recently met with a colleague of mine who had reported work related stressor and early stages of burn out to her manager some several months ago. How did her manager support her? By not listening to her cry for support and then (during latter stages before taking long term sick leave) suggested she take anti-depressant medication. Effective management? I think not!
So, what can we take from these experiences? Well for me, I believe that all of the above scenarios or concerns raised could have been avoided or at the very least resolved. All issues are linked to poor management and an unwillingness or inability to support staff during the good times and the bad. I believe more emphasis should be on staff development and in the promotion of their welfare needs. If you ask any Social Work or Social Care Professional about what they enjoy the most, 90% will say it’s in the nitty gritty bits of the work – the doing and working with service users. So without effective management that is supportive and decisive, there will always be recruitment and retention issues within our profession and, more worryingly, an over reliance on anti-depressant medication.
Given our extensive front-line experience and line management, we have put together some top tips on how to be a good manager. For any new or experienced manager, this will give you some new ideas or a different perspective on what management should mean.