June 11

5 Best books on making case management less painful


Being a case manager, is hard. We get it.

You’re swamped, always.

Wake up, check your phone, and you immediately see dozens of messages asking for your attention. Your boss is asking you for a meeting to discuss another work project about the staff retreat.

You see your client messaging you over Whatsapp Business, trying to get your attention.

Then there are the emails that have already started streaming in.

And it’s only 820am.

You’re not ready for this.

That’s why you wonder if there are some better books out there that can help you to manage case management. If you remember those books recommended from your time at university, which you quickly checked out with your credit card, they might be sitting on your shelf, already dusty from all the years left there.

You don’t have to tell your professor, but yes, I will whisper it.

It was probably, very, boring.

I had that too. When I first started as a social work case manager, I wondered why it seemed so different from the neat and tidy theories I had been taught at university.

The problem starts with the focus on relational theories, and not productivity ones

Much of university will teach you how to manage the relational dynamic between yourself and the client. You will thus learn theories such as the use of self, the relationship-based approach (of which Gillian Ruch is the biggest proponent), and other counselling models.

What they don’t teach you, and what you will rudely find upon starting placement, is how much less counselling there is, and how much more case management there is.

Case management is not counselling

The difference between counselling and case management
The difference between counselling and case management

The dynamic between therapeutic counselling and the more controlling aspect of case management is often not pointed out. As social workers, therapist, (or counsellors, as they call them in Asia) we might have entered the field with a noble purpose.

We thought it was about sitting in the chair, and listening to the client. What we don’t realise, is that it’s often more about managing the client’s outcomes too.

If you’re a social worker, you would have had a rude shock if I showed you the graph below.

Time use in social work, by Professor Harry Ferguson, during his research in 2016
Time use in social work, by Professor Harry Ferguson, during his research in 2016

But as you think back about the time you’ve spent in the past week actually working with service users, you would quickly have seen the correlation.

More time is spent on admin, than anything else.

You might have remembered the times where you:

  1. Sat on the waiting line of a government agency, twiddling your thumbs and hoping that someone would pick up your call
  2. Sat with a client to fill up forms for a financial assistance, food voucher programme
Page 195, of Ferguson’s 2016 article: Professional helping as negotiation in motion: Social work as work on the move, Applied Mobilities, Vol. 1, (2016), 193-206.
Page 195, of Ferguson’s 2016 article: Professional helping as negotiation in motion: Social work as work on the move, Applied Mobilities, Vol. 1, (2016), 193-206.

That’s when I began to realise that what we needed to be taught in case management wasn’t so much the relational theories, but more productivity advice.

Let’s look below at the 4 areas which I think are generally under-taught in university, in preparing you for a better life as a case manager (and the books that will help with that).

Too little time, too many tasks

If you’ve ever found yourself staring at your computer screen, with the email popping up at one corner, your browser buzzing you with notifications of the WhatsApp you’re receiving from your clients, you would probably know what I mean.

It’s hard to know where to start when you have so many things, happening, all at once.

That’s why the crucial thing here isn’t about productivity, or doing more.

It’s about productivity, or doing the right things.

That’s why the first questions to always ask yourself are:

  1. What are the goals my organisation is measuring me by?
    1. For example, in my workplace, it is measured by the number of client sessions we have per month. The client goals are not as important, because we recognise that every client can only develop at their only rate and potential.
  2. What are all my projects on hand?
    1. Without a doubt, you would quickly find yourself swamped by projects outside your normal job such as staff welfare, the World Mental Health Day preparations, or even the office renovation. Don’t laugh. That’s been assigned before.
    2. Mapping those projects out can help you to just have the awareness of how much you have to do, and slowly readjusting the balance.

Becoming Better (John Lim) – to case manage efficiently and effectively

Yup, that’s right. Because we faced so much difficulty trying to find something that could help us, we decided to write our own book.

Part memoir, part self-help book, I wrote this with plenty of my personal experiences, hoping that you would resonate with some of them.

Take this part for example.

I stared at my screen, looking at the stock prices.

Did I ever expect to be this burnt out, trying to excite myself with prices of shares jumping across the screen, when I first joined social work?

Probably not.

Yes, we know that feeling. Where we’re procrastinating through social media even though we know we should be doing our case notes.

We recognised that case management didn’t take place in a silo. Rather, it was something where we were handling clients, colleagues, and the wider community.

But what was more important to realise was how to get the basics right. When we start working in case management, it’s vital to understand yourself. Without that understanding, you might find it hard to even know what skills you have to work with.

It’s like using your head to bang against the wall, when you might have a hammer (which symbolises your skills) that you’ve forgotten to use.

What’s interesting about this book is that we’ve also tried our best to include exercises that you can do.

Knowing the time pressures on social workers, we deliberately designed the book so that you can immediately take something away.

For example, if you read what’s below, the concept of deep work is not often something that’s brought up in case management, especially when it seems like the biggest value-add you bring is how fast you can pick up your phone.

Can you imagine? Picking up your phone?!

What value does that create? Beyond more anxiety for yourself by having to constantly deal with the inputs, resulting in an ability to get things like case notes, done?

But more than just the case management aspect, the book also covers aspects such as difficult colleagues.

I know, because I faced it when I first started as a fresh-faced social worker.

But you would have faced your share too, especially after you realise that the charitable sector doesn’t necessarily mean you always meet nice people working within it.

Of course, you can get the book here if you’re keen.

Emotional overwhelm

As a social work student, I remember working with my first client, who suffered from post-traumatic stress after being tortured.

He once shared that he wanted to fling himself in front of the tram in Nottingham. That worried me, and stopped me from being able to sleep peacefully.

I worried that when I entered the office the next morning, I would hear of his death.

That was when my therapist introduced me to the text that brought him a certain degree of calm.

Help for the Helper (Babette Rothschild) – to dissociate from the client’s pain

In a counselling dyad, you will quickly find your client drawing you into his wormhole. He will constantly pick up problems, and surface them to you.

It can be easy to get stuck in, and to find yourself unable to get out.

That’s when Rothschild’s book, helps.

She likens it to sitting in your own chair, and not getting sucked into the client’s chair. That helps in dissociating your experience, and the client’s experience, so that you don’t eventually get too sucked in, and unable to make a good judgment.

That brings us to the next book, which you will love if you like personal narratives.

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (Lori Gottlieb) – navigate your own personal crises

Lori is a phenomenal writer. She makes the painful funny, and helps you to learn from that. Sharing her own experience of breaking up, amidst her career as a therapist, she quickly helps you to see how to navigate your own personal crises.

During my first job as a social worker, I was also taking antidepressants. Her book led me to see the light in being honest about those struggles with my supervisor (who understood), and also how to reframe the story in my head.

Difficult people to work with

Why do colleagues in the social services not seem so nice to work with? It’s a question that we often find difficult to answer. You would expect that charities, would have big-hearted people. But somehow or rather, after a while, you might have realised that the lower pay given out may inevitably mean that those who can earn more, end up leaving.

It’s what Dan Pallotta rightly recognised during his Ted talk about why charities were facing problems retaining the best in the sector.

Again, it was hard to find many books that addressed how to address these difficult people that appeared.

Now, now, this book teaches you 3 simple methods to work with difficult people. Keep your distance. Assume the best (not the worst) of them. Be nice to them (by buying them treats).
Now, now, this book teaches you 3 simple methods to work with difficult people. Keep your distance. Assume the best (not the worst) of them. Be nice to them (by buying them treats).

So, we wrote another book.

Before you throw your mouse at me, relax. We really did our best here.

Grace Teo, a lecturer at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, shared with us 3 tips that helped.

  1. Keep your distance from those who might hurt you.
  2. Assume the best of them, not the worst.
  3. Buy treats for them.

If you try these things, you can be sure that you’re going to improve your relationship with them, however mean they seem to you. Sometimes, they aren’t intentional about it. But if we focus on how mean they seem, it may end up colouring our eyes to the good in them.

Try to see the good in them.

You might be surprised.

On being nice: a guide to friendship and connection (School of Life) – Read it to figure out how to be a nicer person to not so nice people

School of Life is an excellent publisher of books. They are often able to tease out the amusing parts of the small things in life that make us go, ‘Awww!’

It’s much the same here, in this book.

They talk about how being nice has been seen as being weak. And how we might want to take some time to celebrate what it truly means to be nice, even to others who might not be as charitable to us.

Forget the social work books, try the above first

You might have come here looking for some big name social work authors. Thick books, that might end up gathering more dust on your shelf.

We don’t have that, unfortunately.

What we do have though, are books that we are certain might work better, for the unique role of case management, which is often under-taught in university.

You might just find your skills rocketing.



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