Secret Social Worker: meltdowns

Lila Halliday on meltdowns

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It’s a Friday night in 2014. I’m a new manager of a child protection and court team. I’m sat in my senior manager’s office being told I should be doing better and asked why my staff don’t want to be managed by me anymore. I have no prior knowledge of these concerns and I’m unprepared. What I do know is that I am drowning and terrified. I can’t take the pace and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve been in a state of internal crisis for months, worried that I will get found out for the charlatan I am.

Hiding your deficits and pretending you’ve got it covered fools no one. It is extremely unsafe and I was sat there finding that out. The past six months had been a whirlwind. I was managing a large volume of work and I was not a welcome leader to my former colleagues. I was paranoid, lacking confidence, and being prescribed beta-blockers and anti-anxiety medication. I never saw my children and my marriage was falling apart. Oh, and I had a nice stomach ulcer to boot. This meeting was just the kick in the face I needed. I was asked to step down from my position and be a social worker again. On the way from this meeting I crashed my car.

As dramatic as it sounds it’s not an uncommon tale. Throughout my career I have seen social workers crying into their laptops, pacing the streets muttering “I can’t do this” repeatedly, tears streaming down their faces. The truth is, they’re right, they can’t do it. What they want for the people they work with and themselves is not achievable.

We want the families we work with to be happy, safe and autonomous and in many cases we can help them get there. But people have free will and can make whatever choice they like and if it’s harmful to them then we have to sit back and allow that to happen. Other professionals will often ask, “what are social services going to do about this?” but sometimes there’s nothing to be done. You can lead a horse to water and all that. It’s soul destroying sometimes but choice is everything in a free society.

For ourselves we would quite like a life outside of work and not just in the physical sense but emotionally too. There are very few of us who can switch off when we leave the office, most social workers are plagued with work anxieties. We absorb so much sadness and trauma from other people. I learnt to be relatively emotionless quite early on in my career and I genuinely believe that came at a loss of something personal to me. The reason I’ve survived has come at a price.

But I did survive. That meeting in 2014 gave me the jolt I needed and I refused the offer to step down. I have learnt many lessons from this experience. The most important of which are: always ask questions! And working all the hours you can does not protect children, the service or yourself. You can only be effective for a certain period of time, use that time wisely then go home and live your life!

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