Friday, 6 November 2015

Emotional Resilience

I qualified as a social worker in 2001, and like many of my compatriots went into my first job, wide-eyed and eager for action. The years of training and study were complete, and while I realised that the training would always be ongoing, it was time for “the real thing”.  

I was appointed to a child protection team, dealing with referrals concerning children in the locality. I was not without experience, having worked as a teaching assistant in local schools, as well as spending three years in residential settings with children who had emotional and behavioural difficulties. In addition, I had been a Foster Carer for the Local Authority caring for babies prior to their being placed for adoption. I had also been working in this particular team on a part time basis during my time at University, though my work was limited to taking referrals and accompanying colleagues on visits.

I had been assured by a senior manager at my interview that;

 - I would not hold more than 8 cases for the first 12 months and,

 - I would not hold ANY child protection cases; my caseload would be restricted to “children in need”.

I can almost hear the collective sigh from social workers as they read this, because;

 - It was, at best, a dubious promise to make, and,

 - It was in fact completely erroneous and impractical

I was, however, blissfully unaware of the complexities of working in a team of social workers, all of whom were overwhelmed with the sheer volume of work they had to deal with.  I would hear them worrying about how many children they had on their caseload and how stressed they felt. They would question aloud how they were going to get all their visits done, never mind write the endless reports, which always seemed to be overdue. I pitied them, but I felt safe; after all, I was only going to have 8 cases max, and none of them would be child protection …….. right?


The reality kicked in precisely 2 weeks into the job. One of the children on my caseload was a young person of 13 years who refused to attend school, and who exhibited challenging behaviour at home. Things came to a head, and I received a frantic phone call from his mother telling me that she had lost her temper and punched her son in the face. She requested that I come and remove him immediately from her house, adding that she never wanted to see him again. I went immediately to speak to my line manager, and with hindsight, my naivety was laughable, as I honestly expected that, the case would be transferred to someone else with more experience. After explaining the situation to her, she rightly advised that an Initial Child Protection Case Conference would need to be convened. I anxiously enquired who would write the report and her response brought my new world sharply into focus. She raised an eyebrow in mock query and said,

“You’re a qualified social worker aren’t you? You’ll be doing it”.

And so it began; call it what you will; a baptism of fire, thrown in at the deep end, a rude awakening. It all equated to one thing, THIS was the reality of the job. There would be no protected caseload, no special dispensation because I was newly qualified and certainly no abatement of cases being allocated to me.  

Within a few weeks, my caseload had grown to 34 children, 19 of whom were subject to child protection plans. While this might seem like a luxury number of cases to an experienced social worker; to a newbie like me, it was an unbelievable nightmare. There were never enough hours in a day and like every other social worker I have ever met, I worked far more hours than I was ever paid for, in an effort to keep my head above water. 

It was a vicious circle; the more I tried to be superwoman by working at home or staying late in the office, the more I created an illusion, with regard to my capabilities ............... it was no more than a mirage. Consequently, my manager overestimated my capacity and the work kept coming. I was given cases far above my level of experience; badly injured babies, complex court cases, extremely aggressive parents and more.

I became aware of an alien sensation in the pit of my stomach, like an oily snake writhing about, ever demanding, ever present. I did not sleep properly, and when I did sleep, I would wake up with a dull ache in my jaw where I had ground my teeth in the night. My left eye developed an almost permanent twitch and I was jumpy and on constant red alert, even when I was not at work.

I did have regular supervision, but my fear of being seen as a failure led me to play down my feelings of stress and anxiety. I told my manager that I felt a bit swamped, and she smiled and told me I was more than capable of dealing with the cases I had. I felt undue pressure to succeed and not let the team down. After all, I was the new girl and did not want to be seen as a failure to the job in which I so wanted to succeed.

It took only 9 months for me to burn out.

I remember the day so well. I was at my third case conference in a week, none of which had seen the support of my manager. As I sat facing the mother in question across the table, she began to shout at me, berating me for the things I had written in my report. As she spoke, it was as if she was disappearing down a long tunnel. I watched in detached fascination – I could see her mouth moving, but no longer heard any words. What I didn’t realise was, that I was having a panic attack. I was fortunate in that the Chair of the meeting DID realise what was going on, halted the meeting, and asked everyone to leave the room. I was a shaking, hyperventilating wreck, unable to string a sentence or understand what was going on.

I was sent home, and went to see my ever-sensible and very pragmatic GP; I explained my failure to her, my inability to do the job I so wanted to be good at. What she told me was shocking, 

“Take time off or you’ll be having your first nervous breakdown”.  

How could this have happened? I was dedicated, conscientious, and hard working. What I failed to appreciate at the time was that there is a world of difference between being a capable person, and having the experience and fortitude required to cope with this highly stressful profession. So, what’s the solution?

Stress and crisis management are part of the role of the child protection social worker. I am of the opinion that to avoid burn out, we must firstly be brutally honest about our feelings; don’t make the mistake I did and try to be superwoman, bravely battling on, fearful of being thought of as a failures. We must feel safe to share our anxieties and confide our fears and gain the support we need to continue doing the job. Secondly, we need to develop EMOTIONAL RESILIENCE.

Emotionally resilient people share certain traits, which all of us can learn to develop. Here are just a few ideas, which may help.

A Few Key Elements to Emotional Resilience

Know Your Boundaries
Take control and be decisive. BE HONEST - If you need help or advice; ask for it, and if you need to say no, say no.

Develop Self-Awareness
Learn to reflect on what is causing you to be anxious and why. Be prepared to adapt and be flexible where possible – bend don’t break.

Be realistic about what you can and cannot change; accept you don’t always have all the answers.

Be Reflective
Step back and consider all possibilities. See the bigger picture, discuss problems with colleagues, and listen to advice.

Keep a Sense of Perspective
You cannot do it all; do the best you can and keep a positive self-image. The storm WILL pass.  

Take Care of Yourself
Healthy eating, sleep, relaxation, and exercise. Have outside interests and a positive network of people. Maintain a sense of humour and learn to appreciate silence. Run, write, play sports, cry, sing, meditate, breathe.

This is not an exhaustive list by any means. There are a multitude of ways, people can develop their emotional resilience. This is simply a short list of ideas, which may bring some immediate insight and encouragement.

In my case, I made the decision to take 12 months out of social work. I started a successful business, and spent the time reflecting on how and why things had gone so wrong. When I felt confident that I had developed a realistic perspective, I returned to child protection and found that in adopting the above suggestions and more, I managed to keep a healthy balance. Even on the most stressful days, I was still able to say I loved my work and while social work will always be stressful, I have never again suffered such debilitating stress to the level that it prevented me from doing my job.  

I put my experiences to good use. In 2013, with the support of my husband Steve, I retired from front line social work and wrote a book based on my experiences. The book is titled, Known to Social Services, and is a fictionalised account of the day to day life of a social worker. Known to Social Services was the bestselling social work book on Amazon UK within a few weeks of release. I wrote the book for several reasons, but mainly to raise awareness of the almost impossible task faced by social workers today. The book has exceeded all my expectations, and has provoked a positive response from the general public and social workers alike. I am especially gratified to have feedback from students as to the book's insight into an unknown world, a world, they are about to enter; their comments in regard to its usefulness as a part of their development and training, means a great deal to me.  

Known to Social Services is available via Amazon and other outlets as a download or paperback. To find out more about this and my other work, please visit the website. I am currently working on a sequel, which will look at the world of child trafficking. 



  1. Why is "sense of humour" - or, as is more often the case, "dark sense of humour" - rarely listed as an attribute if those with emotional resilience ?? It's what kept me going when our foster placement died through volatile substance misuse.

  2. You are absolutely right Mike; sense of humour is essential. I usually talk about the need for a strong sense of humour when I write about attributes necessary to be a social worker, but it is important for resilience as well. I have included it here in the last point "Take Care of Yourself" Many thanks for the interest

  3. Hi Freya I found your article very interesting and will look to purchasing your book! May I ask your advice on a slightly different thread, I am a second year social work student about to embark on my first placement however, the thought of going out into the "real world" fills me with fear, what if I can't deliver, what if I get it completley wrong, what would you suggest I could try maybe to boost my confidence

  4. Hello Chrissy, first of all, many thanks for your kind comments re the piece on emotional resilience, and your intent to purchase the book. With regard to your first placement, I would say that the emotions you are experiencing are quite normal, though you don't way what kind of placement it is. Is it with children or adults? My advice to you would be to read as much as you can on the front line world of social work. May I recommend "Child Protection Practice" by Professor Harry Ferguson, which has excellent reviews as a good hands on book. Also, be totally honest, both with yourself and your manager / placement co-ordinator. If there are difficulties, discuss them, rather than make the mistakes I did in trying to soldier on and be superwoman. I think it's safe to say that at some time you will get it wrong, I know I did. It's how we learn. However, when things go wrong, keep it in proportion and don't beat yourself up. Ask for help and advice from the other people in situ who I imagine will be experienced social workers, who as a rule are only too happy to assist. I wish you luck. Have confidence, I'm guessing you know more than you realise - feel free to email me if I can be of more help and support Freya

  5. Thank you for your sound advice Freya I am a little relieved to hear that my fears are completely normal and I will certainly look at the book you have suggested, once again thanks