Maybe today you are struggling to bounce back after a client shouted at you.
Or you are feeling sad after some poor feedback from your supervisor about your work.
Or you might even feel tired of all the cases that are flooding your inbox.
In challenging times like these, you and I need to rebuild our social work resilience.
Think of social work resilience as a battery for your emotions.
As setbacks happen in life, your battery gets drained.
Over time, your motivation to continue doing the great social work you do decreases.
You get more lethargic.
You wonder if there’s a point.
You begin to consider quitting.
Indeed, when there are such heavy demands on social work, it seems that other jobs can be easier. Why put yourself in a place where you are subjected to so much stress?
If that’s you today, I hope this article helps you to recharge your social work resilience.
Before we go into how to build resilience in social work, let’s look at what resilience is.
What, really, is resilience in social work?
There are a lot of terms bandied around when you talk about resilience in social work.
Some talk about bouncing back stronger.
Others say it’s the ability to grit through tough times.
I didn’t think those represented what resilience truly is.
Resilience is bouncing back stronger after perceived setbacks.
There are 2 key elements of this definition which I want to share.
Stronger through resilience
Firstly, it’s about coming back stronger.
After a difficult time, you might feel weaker, or even drained after the battle. You feel weaker, not stronger!
But within you, something has changed.
Something has become stronger.
You haven’t seen it yet.
In many ways, resilience is like a trampoline.
Each time you fall, the strength of the trampoline determines how fast and how high you can bounce back again.
Knowing this about resilience (and trampolines), let me share an example.
As a social work student on my last placement, there were two times when I nearly failed my placement. After the first concerns process (where the supervisor raises concerns that you might not pass the placement), I had a month of peace.
Then the second concerns process started again.
After the first concerns process, I had been very tired. I had struggled to sleep. I was worried about what would possibly happen.
When I went through the second concerns process, I thought: this is it. I’m going to quit social work.
Never come back.
But within me, a fire started burning.
I refused to give up.
It was almost as if my mind said:
You wouldn’t dare give up after so much!
I found a deep reserve of grit that I had never found before.
Today, in your work, resilience is about pushing through difficult times. But it’s also about looking up and saying:
I will come through this a better person. I might not know how much better. But I know it’s going to be better.
It’s how you perceive it.
Bad supervisors who don’t understand what you’re going through?
Let’s face it.
Some supervisors are bad.
You wonder how they even became supervisors.
When you share with them a problem, they don’t seem able to empathise. In fact, they tell you that it’s not that serious.
That’s why it’s how you perceive the setback.
Not how others see it.
No one can truly understand the depth of pain you’re feeling except you.
But it’s up to you to own what you’re feeling.
The two principles of social work resilience
Understanding what resilience is, let’s look at what the principles are.
Of course, there are many things you can do.
But without understanding the principles, it’s pointless to try doing the actions that might lead to great social work resilience.
Building social work resilience is like building muscles.
Remember the time when you told yourself you would go to the gym everyday to build up better muscles?
It’s painful, isn’t it?
The worst thing is, nothing ever seems to change!
You go to the mirror after a week, look at your tummy…
It’s still there!
Similarly, with social work resilience, there’s a point in time when nothing seems to be changing. But deep within, changes are happening which you might not see.
You might think that you can only build resilience when you face a setback.
That’s not true.
There are other ways which you can cross-train for resilience. This means that rather than intentionally wishing bad things (so that you can build resilience), you can build it in other ways.
What’s most important is being intentional about it.
For example, one of the most useful ways is to give yourself stretch assignments.
You see a call for staff on a new or difficult project.
You know that you don’t have all the skills. But you know that it’s something that within your area of interests. And you know that you will grow through this project.
What’s more important is the act of reviewing what you’ve done.
Let’s continue with the getting fit example.
You’ve continued going to the gym. Yet you don’t find yourself growing in strength or fitness.
Ever wondered why that is?
Do you reflect on what you’ve done?
You might think this is crazy.
Reflecting on exercise? What’s there to reflect about?
Like how fast you ran. Or when you started feeling tired. Why did you start feeling tired? What meal did you eat before the workout? How did you get your personal best today?
You get the point.
Similarly, as you take on stretch assignments, reflect on what you’re learning through them.
Don’t do them for the sake of it.
Learn something from it.
Ask yourself three simple questions.
- What’s going well?
- What’s not going well?
- How can I do better?
Recharge your social work resilience
Recharging your resilience is like charging your battery.
You don’t want to wait till it’s dead before you charge it.
Therefore, regularly taking steps such as:
- A walk in the park during lunch time
- Eating lunch away from the work desk
- Meditating with an app like Headspace
- Going for regular breaks every 30 minutes
- Making yourself a nice mug of tea
These small acts of self-care help to recharge your social work resilience. It ensures that you are not burnt out, but are rested and refreshed.
Too often, we push ourselves to the limit for the sake of our clients. That’s admirable, but it forgets that we are human.
See failures in social work as lessons
I’ve failed many times as a social worker, and as a student.
During my student placements, I went through the concerns procedure twice in two months! For those unfamiliar, the concerns procedure is initiated when your supervisor is concerned that you would fail your placement.
But as Guy Winch shares in Emotional First Aid, in times of failure, we need to ask ourselves:
- What can I learn from this?
- What can I do next time?
- What will I stop doing in future?
This translates failure into a lesson, making it more positive. Often, we see failure as a personal failure. We end up seeing ourselves in a worse light, thinking of ourselves as being inadequate. Yet seeing lessons from failure can encaourage us to see the qualities in ourselves too, and how we might develop them for the better in future.
Tell yourself that this too shall pass
One of the Alcoholic Anonymous’ slogan is ‘This too shall pass,’ to help alcoholics remember that whatever urges they face, it will pass in due time. When we face difficult times in social work, we tend to be enamoured by it. We are flooded by it. We sink in it.
Often, we forget to take a step back and remember that this is just a momentary period in time. Social work resilience is about reminding ourselves that tough times don’t last, but tough people do.
Remember, in difficult times, tell yourself: This too shall pass.
As social workers, we help others.
But we seem averse to the idea of getting help ourselves.
We aren’t perfect.
We need help too.
Resilience is about realising that sometimes, we can’t solve difficult things on our own. We need to engage the help of those around us, who can lend a different perspective to what is around us.
We want to care for others. But we mustn’t forget that to give, we must first be in a position to give. To draw out of the well of help, we must constantly fill up that well.
Be 100% responsible for yourself
Cloud and Townsend share in their book, Boundaries, that we are responsible to others, but responsible for ourselves.
This means that we are accountable to others we serve, but we are not responsible for the changes we see in their lives.
Sometimes, social work can be frustrating when you see that nothing is changing.
It makes it more difficult to bounce back from failures you see in the clients you work with. you wonder if you just aren’t good enough to help them.
But the truth is that we can’t change others. This is a brutal, but definite reality. Accepting the limits of what we can change helps us to be kinder to ourselves.
Instead, we start learning to bounce back better by being 100% responsible for our own social work resilience.
Social work resilience is about bouncing back – stronger, better, and more resilient.
But it starts with a commitment to ourselves, rather than to others. When we start caring and loving ourselves, we realise that bouncing back is not a myth, but a possibility.