November 10

6 hacks for less painful social work documentation

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When I was a student social worker in the U.K., my supervisor used to drive me to the clients we would visit. One day, we were really busy. Back to back meetings in the office, followed by home visits.

My supervisor's sandwich in the car made me wonder if there was a better way to handle the overwhelming nature of social work.
My supervisor’s sandwich in the car made me wonder if there was a better way to handle the overwhelming nature of social work.

My supervisor took out her sandwich, and started having it in her car.

You see, John, sometimes you just have no time to eat.

Sweeping off the breadcrumbs off her skirt, she then added,

So you learn to make your car your office.

Time.

Or the lack of it.

It’s a major problem in social work, with as many as 45% of time being spent on administrative paperwork, as shown in Ferguson’s 2016 study of U.K. social workers in 2 different sites.

Looks like we, as social workers, do spend a lot of time in the office!
Looks like we, as social workers, do spend a lot of time in the office!

This article doesn’t profess to know all the answers to making social work documentation an easier process, but it does try to add things that have worked for me, during my 2 years as a student social worker in the U.K., and also 2 years in a social service agency in Singapore.

A caveat

I don’t have all the answers. And some of these suggestions may seem contrarian, and perhaps even crazy. My encouragement to you is to try it.

But if you’re looking for answers from a professor or a PHD, I confess. I don’t have them.

I can only share from my real-life experience, taken from working across places like Peru, Singapore, the U.K., and China.

Understand what good documentation looks like

When I first started as a fully fledged social worker in Singapore, I didn’t know what to do. After all, I had trained in a completely different context, and didn’t necessarily know what the ‘model answer’ here was.

Whenever I submitted my social reports (assessments to agencies to explain why a certain client needed certain help), I kept getting turned down.

Turns out there was a certain format to how things were written.

What can help you, especially when you first start out is to get samples from your supervisor. A simple question such as:

  1. Do you have any good assessments that I could refer to or learn from?
  2. What was good about this particular report?

As a social worker, you really don’t want to be wasting time editing and re-editing your assessments and documentation, especially when you’re so tight for time.

Vulnerably ask for help
Vulnerably ask for help

Asking for samples can help.

Imprison time for administrative work like social work documentation

The second aspect really comes in terms of this concept I call ‘prison time’. This concept, from entrepreneur Shane Melaugh, is about locking away time for admin work.

I confess.

I hated admin work. Sitting in front of a computer, doing my case notes, recording my caseload for the month, just wasn’t my idea of social change. I preferred to be out, meeting clients and getting to work on a personal level with them.

Many of us join social work wanting to make that kind of impact.

And I know that at the end of the day, you may not have the time or the energy to do that.

Sometimes social work can feel like this, where the life is being sucked out of you.
Sometimes social work can feel like this, where the life is being sucked out of you.

Sitting with a pile of case notes in front of you, which you know you have to complete, but which you have no desire to, may make you more keen on procrastinating, than making an effort to do it.

That’s where prison time comes in.

As much as your schedule as a social worker may never be the same, week on week, having the intention to do your social work documentation at a certain time can help you to be less anxious about the piles of case notes or assessments you know haven’t been typed.

With the work from home culture more of a thing today, I recommend that your prison time is a time where you are:

  1. Highest in energy – such as in the morning, rather than the post-lunch slump
  2. Having quiet time to yourself – such as at home, when you won’t be disturbed by colleagues asking you for things
  3. Having something to look forward to – having a nice hot chocolate to reward yourself with after a hard day clearing admin, can be a really nice treat to look forward to.
  4. Putting your distractions away, like your phone – here you might argue that your client needs ready access to you and needs to be able to call you every time, but I beg to differ. Just try working for a 1.5 hour chunk where you put your phone outside of the room you work. You will realise that clients, will generally be fine.

Having prison time though, doesn’t work if you’re distracted.

Have a distraction log

You’ve probably been in the place where you have a million things to do, and your mind is constantly throwing you more and more ideas about what you should do.

That’s scary. You don’t feel like you can really focus on what you’re doing.

When you start writing your assessment, you might find yourself suddenly switching to Whatasapp Web to answer a client. Or suddenly realising you have to throw off an email.

Having a distraction log helps. This log, is simple. Take a piece of paper and write down the random thoughts that come to your head, whenever they come. You will realise that this helps you feel safe and secure with your ideas, rather than feeling scared that you won’t get to them.

You don't have to grow more hands to do your work. Too much to do, too little time to do it? Focus your mind with a distraction log, writting down your distractions on a simple piece of paper.
You don’t have to grow more hands to do your work. Too much to do, too little time to do it? Focus your mind with a distraction log, writting down your distractions on a simple piece of paper.

Learn to type faster

And this may sound like stupid advice, but type faster.

Touch type faster. Touch typing is typing simply by touch, rather than having to look at the keyboard.

If you need to look at the keyboard before you type, you’re not typing fast enough.

Why bother about typing? Because typing is going to be one of the few ways you’ll be interacting with your computer. You could possibly voice-to-text your assessments and case notes, but from my experience, that can be more troublesome because of how much time it takes to correct the wrong spellings and words.

But typing faster will help you to more efficiently push out your documentation, like a factory.

Too few of us think about the way we type. This is a wasted opportunity.

Don’t lose the chance to exponentially increase the speed at which you type.

Typing Club is a fun way to improve your skills. Just don’t get caught playing it.

Have a task list

This is a Personal Productivity Board on Notion that I learnt from Shane Melaugh. You can also download and duplicate it here.

This board is arranged by priority. The task cards at the top are the most important, followed by the ones at the bottom.

An example of a kanban board you can use, arranged top down by priority
An example of a kanban board you can use, arranged top down by priority

Arranging it this way can help you to have a better handle on what’s urgent and what’s not, especially when you are busy.

You’ve probably had those times when you’re sat in front of your to-do list, and immediately wondering,

Gosh. There’s so much. Where do I start?!

This can help.

But it also helps you to keep track of what you’re working on at that moment. Rather than constantly switching place to place to do the many things on your plate, and ending up nowhere at the end of the day, this keeps you focused.

There are more productivity tips, but…

Focus and action. Knowing what you need to do, and doing them, are the two keys to effectively clearing your documentation.

It’s not just about being more efficient, but being more effective.

Being effective is about knowing what to work on. Often, when we are swamped with casework, we just don’t have time to clear the documentation that piles up as a result of the cases you’re handling.

And by the time it’s due, you get stressed. Your supervisor gets angry.

That’s unneeded, especially when you’re working so hard for your clients already.

Rather than doing that, randomly tackling your social work documentation when you have pockets of time, take an intentional approach.

Set aside time for paperwork.

Queue and line up your tasks on a kanban, so you know what you need to work on.

Then efficiently work at it, with faster typing.

You will get there.

You’re already on your way.


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