Burn out - social work, coaching, and how we can work together
I was recently sitting on a train and overheard a pair of keen college students writing an entry letter for a social work university course. "I am going to focus on the strong connection between physical and mental well-being", one of the teens explained. These teens were full of hope and excitement. In contrast, I’m truly burnt out. Having fled the world of social work and pivoted towards a career in holistic coaching, I’m aware of my scars. The student’s naive ambition gave me a sense of nostalgia and warmth, but also left me feeling completely disheartened. Let me explain why, in the hope that I can give you some advice to save you getting burnt too.
I loved my social work masters; it was a truly fascinating expansion of social psychology and sociological studies. The reality was quite different. I worked in an extremely pressured, fund-limited, and quite frankly dangerous system. I felt like the dreams I had when I studied just vanished. I am not here to denigrate the system, in fact, I would like to give some recognition and thanks to the active social workers who deal with impossible caseloads. They are surviving with almost no resources, and the children and adults in need endure unimaginable adversity and still manage to cope in a world that struggles to understand them, leaving them faced with stigma.
As our college student explained, there is a strong connection between physical and mental well-being, and it’s fundamental in being able to work with different client groups. People generally jump to the person being helped when we talk about this, but it’s true for the person helping too. Whether that’s a social worker, youth worker, coach, mentor, teacher, or boss (the list goes on). They need to be physically and mentally well, however, more often this is being neglected, leaving us burnt out.
As a social worker, I often saw a disconnect between physical, mental, and social health amongst those I was working with. When school was not going well for a pre-teen boy who just moved into foster care and couldn’t pay attention in class, never was there discussion about what his diet was or how he was sleeping (i.e. physical health), nor about what exactly contributed to his low mood (i.e. his mental health), or what he felt was causing the break down in relationships (i.e. social health) between his peers and teachers. His whole world had fallen apart, and all the while, the constraints within the system meant that only 'crisis mode' support was available for him.
While this boy was suffering from poor appetite, sleep problems, angry outbursts, trouble concentrating in class (these are just a few examples of a host of other issues), simultaneously, I was suffering from digestive disorders, nightmares, sleep loss, hair loss, vitamin D deficiency, low mood, disengagement from social events, etc. In the social service sector, there is no office yoga, gym memberships, mindfulness classes, bonuses, staff socials, drop-in supervision or emotional support. Ironically, we could argue this is the sector that needs it the most*, but at the time it was only really prevalent in well-funded corporates. Burn out was in full swing.
This was when I made the painful decision of changing careers. Although coaching was a part of the social work job, it was clouded by paperwork, phone calls, endless regurgitation of the same information across recording platforms, safety checks, and again more paperwork. I missed simply sitting and engaging with another human in need. Holistic coaching has the ability to go back to what the core of social work is actually meant to be: listening to and supporting the wellbeing of another human who is looking for change.
I beat myself up, feeling like I had left all these people behind, but my health was suffering too much to be able to give them the holistic and above-board support they deserved. Stepping away to focus on one-to-one coaching gave me an opportunity to push aside the redundant admin and become truly person-centred. With this change, I too began to heal.
So what did I learn from all this? I started to recognise human health as a circle with many components inside it rather than individual boxes with each individual part separate from one another. I re-learned the power of engaging with people on a one-to-one basis, which is reflective of how prevalent it is now becoming to support others to combat stress and burnout across a variety of disciplines.
I’ve now started to collaborate with other well-being professionals, slowly starting to align rather than work in isolation. Of course, there are always going to be some differences, but working in this way utilises what we have in common. Much like how our physical, mental and social well-being is connected, and works better when all three components are thriving. When we’re connected, together we become more resilient. It’s a winning combination for those helping, and being helped.
Top three ideas on how we can work together
1. Research what the different professionals around you actually do.
2. Stop seeing each other as competition and find ways of collaborating - maybe a coach has a client who mentions that their poor diet affects them. You could speak to a nutritionist and perhaps both come up with a joint plan on how to address the coachy stuff (emotions, thoughts around food, how this relates to the overall goal), as well as the nutritionist stuff, e.g. diet (with a personalised diet plan).
3. Be daring enough to initiate conversation with someone you don’t really know well but you are intrigued by, and talk to them about their role and why they chose it. Ignore all the what-ifs or other reasons you give yourself not to engage with this person. Really, what’s the worst that can happen?
Top tips on how to combat burn out before it hits you
1. Spend less time doing things that you find overwhelming, for example: one hour of phone time a day vs five, to lessen your exposure to the extremely high amount of information that we have access to at any time of day or night, which might lead to worry or low mood. Maybe you think it doesn’t usually affect you like that, but I find that it’s quite likely that if you are already stressed, this could add to it.
2. Consider if you are truly too busy to engage in something new you’d like to try to enhance your well-being. Are you actually too busy to try that new boxing class or did you just spend two hours scrolling through webpages that you haven’t read all the way through because you got bored?
3. Advocate for yourself at work if you feel that things aren’t quite right. Would your manager/boss be opposed to a staff social, or enrolling you on a free or low-cost telephone helpline where you could vent confidentially? If you don’t want to initiate this yourself, perhaps there are confidential ways of suggesting this or you could collate a group of other colleagues who would also benefit.
4. Try to do one thing at once. How often are you multi-tasking? Eating dinner while watching TV? Probably didn’t even think of that as doing two things at once, but something as simple as separating these two actions is giving your mind and body a break by having the ability to focus on one activity at a time.
5. Listen to your body and try to notice differences. Have you noticed that you have headaches lately, your mood is a little off, or you’re irritable but can’t figure out why? These are examples that I know could be from a number of other factors, but it’s still worth considering if they are early signs of burn out.
Click below for even more tips on both topics. I welcome further discussion on this, because remember, together we become more resilient.
* Editorial Team HR News (2019, March 11) Revealed: The Most and Least Stressful Jobs. Retrieved from http://hrnews.co.uk/revealed-the-most-and-least-stressful-jobs/
* Health and Safety Executive. (2018, October 31) Work related stress depression or anxiety statistics in Great Britain, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress.pdf
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