4. Organisational Support
Before discussing the importance of self-care when working in disasters, it is vital to highlight that social workers should not be expected to take full responsibility for their mental and physical health and wellbeing, either in their day to day practice, or when responding to disasters. Employers have obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure, as far as reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare of all their employees. This includes the risk of stress.
Unfortunately, social work employers do not always have the greatest track record in supporting the wellbeing of social workers, and social workers consistently rank their working conditions as some of the worst in the country (Ravalier, 2017; Ravalier et al.,, 2020). This is worrying in day-to-day practice, but also brings with it significant risks when social workers are asked to step outside their usual remit, including in responding to disasters, which bring additional stress and strain to practitioners. Therefore, when volunteering or being asked to respond to a disaster, it may be important first and foremost to ask your employer what support they will provide you with, including:
Relief from you usual workload
You should not be required to both manage your usual caseload and also respond to the specific challenges of a disaster.
Debriefing session, daily if necessary
These are different to supervision, and are designed to allow you to process the events that you have been involved in and the experiences you have had. They can be collective or group focused, or just you and a supportive manager or colleague. However, it is important that these are not required/imposed on social workers who do not find them helpful, otherwise they can be perceived as punitive.
Support to stick to your usual working hours
Some disaster work will go on for extended periods of time, and therefore it is important that you are able to maintain separation between your personal and professional working. This includes continuing to take weekends, annual leave and sick days.
Information about your remit/role
While working in disaster contexts requires creative and ethical responses, it is also important that, insofar as possible, you are provided with clear information about your remit and role in responding. Your employer and you should both be on the same page about this.
Access to easily accessible counselling support
This should not require going through your manager to access, and should be 100% confidential. Social workers should hopefully always have access to this type of support, but it becomes particularly important due to the challenging issues that social workers face in working in disasters.
Peer support/buddy systems
While some social workers will feel confident and capable to discuss their experiences of working in disasters with colleagues, others may feel less able to. Therefore, a buddy system of peer support can help to ensure everyone has someone to go to. It can be helpful if this involves linking a social worker who is actively working in the disaster situation with someone who is not, and therefore has the level of distance required to provide support.
As well as debriefing time, social workers working in disaster contexts should be provided with reflection time to examine their own feelings around the work they are doing, and to consider many of the factors raised in this training, such as the application of theory, the need for ethical decision making and how to prioritise the views of those impacted.
Respect for your professional judgement
Working in disasters often requires you to step outside your usually working role, and to be confident to apply creative and ethical responses to the challenges faced. Without the respect, and backing of your employer for your professional judgement to be used in these contexts, you are liable to feel persistently stressed about whether you are making the right decision, which will negatively impact on your ability to help those who need it.
Complete short task 7 in workbook (15 minutes)
Ultimately, employers should avoid a culture of “just getting on with it” during incidents which are anything but normal. Social Care Institute for Excellence research suggests that one of the most harmful approaches that organisations can adopt when their employees are working during disasters is a “business as usual” approach, which can delay the ability of an organisation to recover from the experience. You may also remember the BASW report on the Troubles in Northern Ireland that was discussed in Module 2, some of the social workers in that report described the harmful impact of a culture of “just getting on with it” and the long term impact that it had on them. You are now encourage to revisit that report with this new perspective.
As a disaster-informed social worker, you should feel confident to challenge your employer to provide you with the support you require in these contexts. This can be difficult, but in particular for local authority social workers, it is important to remember that your employer not only has a responsibility to respond to disasters under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, but also has these legal responsibilities around your welfare. Looking at these legal obligations collectively should provide you with an effective foundation for challenging your employer to provide you with the adequate support required to undertake working in disaster contexts