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Reflections on the lack of self-care in social workers

Karin Heber, Professional Officer at SASW shares her reflections on why social workers don't practice what they preach in terms of self care...

This week I found out that social workers are still very caring despite being exhausted from the pandemic. On the flip side, they seem to struggle to care for themselves.

Funded by the Scottish Government, SASW, in partnership with Strengthening Practice launched the Social Work Professional Support Service to social workers across Scotland. The service is a free (yes you heard right- free!) coaching service - no conditions attached. A service simply for social workers to get some thinking space and reflection time with a peer social worker who is also trained as a coach. It is independent from your employer- nobody ever needs to know you have used it. The feedback from social workers who have made use of it so far has been overwhelmingly positive. Some even called it a life saver! You would think social workers would elbow each other out of the way to sign up. But no!

At the same time as advertising this service we also advertised that we would be looking for notes of interest from social workers who would like to train up as coaches themselves, and volunteer their free time to support their colleagues. You would think this is a big ask of social workers who already work way beyond their contractual (and may we add paid) hours. But no! Social worker’s notes of interest to volunteer their spare time kept flooding in. This, to me, is testament to the very essence of our profession - all too often, we are willing to go the extra mile. To support those who use our services, and our colleagues. Those are the kind of social workers I had the honour of working alongside for 27 years.

However, as a Professional Officer with SASW, I also hear the suffering and the exhaustion of workers in this profession, who for far too long have stretched themselves far and beyond to meet more needs, with less resources. The pandemic has exacerbated this even further. Practitioners tell me about the deterioration of their mental health and how they are struggling, but when the opportunity to access a vital and much needed new service presents itself, the reaction is not, " Where can I sign up to get this amazing support for myself?" Instead, the reaction is: "Become a coach, be there for my colleagues and stretch myself thinner - where can I sign up?"

Now, I wonder have we lost touch with our own needs completely after having them neglected for so long? If so, how might this impact on the people we work with? A recent study of health and care staff showed how increasing burnouts are leading to increased deaths of patients and worse care overall. Social workers study for 4 years which costs a significant amount of money, time and effort but only stay in the profession an average of 6/7 years. When will we learn from that? When will we practice what we preach? How can we achieve a mind shift where not the busiest social worker is the best, but where quality of care matters whether this is for others or for ourselves?

If you do one thing, today make it this one: reflect and recognise your needs, prioritise yourself just this once and treat yourself to this fantastic service. Book your appointment now.