In 2003, I was a social worker employed as a caseworker in a large frontline department. It took nine months to reduce me into a perpetually tearful wreck with sweaty palms, a panicky heartbeat and difficulty turning off from work at the end of the day. My clients terrified me.
Like most frontline roles, the work involved interacting with people who were experiencing the worst day of their lives. All were deeply distressed and facing a confronting array of barriers to life. Most had experienced a level of trauma I could barely imagine.
Eventually, my supervisor recommended me for a transfer into a more administrative role and, a year or so later, I successfully applied for a role as an Intake Worker. The intake area within this department was located a few precious metres back from the frontline. Still, it was a fast-paced role, requiring the ability to make heady decisions within tight timeframes.
Importantly, I no longer carried a caseload. Not a single client would be allocated to me as their caseworker. I believed myself to be a lousy caseworker (surely, I’d amply demonstrated this?) and was profoundly grateful that my only ongoing contact with clients would be via telephone or email. In contrast to face-to-face casework, this felt so much safer. For everybody.
Happily, I immersed myself in the intake role for some years, working my way up through more than one promotion. Despite the chronically busy environment, neither I nor my colleagues received any formal supervision. When I asked why, I was told there ‘wasn’t time’. Supervision was a luxury that could be stretched to include caseworkers but not anybody else.
By the time I self-combusted in October 2006, I hadn’t received clinical supervision for at least a year. On this day, my supervisor informed me I was being transferred back into a casework role.
“They’re short-staffed,” she said. “They need you.”
Over the last year or two, I’d repeatedly told my supervisor that I could never return to casework and, on this day, I told her again. I told her I’d consider resigning before being forced to do so.
“It doesn’t matter,’” she said. I was going, whether I liked it or not.
Two weeks later, I’d lost ten kilograms.
Eventually, I was told I could continue as an Intake worker for 3 more months and if I ‘kept my head down,’ that this period may be extended.
One year later, I was still keeping my head down, too scared to eat.
Two years after, the danger of being transferred into casework was still omnipresent. Restrictive eating had become my new norm and at the age of 29, I was admitted to hospital for treatment of anorexia nervosa.
Today, I am 39. Following a long and gruelling recovery, I’ve physically recovered and written a book about my experiences. No longer able to work as a social worker, I’ve instead turned my focus to easing the effects of burnout, compassion fatigue and trauma. I’ve done this while creating a small petsitting business – Canberra’s Friendly Petsitter – and relishing the daily animal therapy that comes with this completely different line of work.
Selfless: a social worker’s own story of trauma and recovery took four agonising years to write and my research was extensive. Mostly, I learned of the strong links between eating disorders and the widespread presence of trauma among our helping professionals.
My experience did not seem to be unusual, with many helpers receiving poor quality or irregular supervision. Those that did have access to supervision were unskilled in advocating for themselves or even fearful of doing so.
Christina Maslach (2003) tells us:
“Professional helpers are among the people least likely to seek help for themselves… Mental health workers may avoid needed therapy because it would imply that they themselves are not mentally healthy – and they, after all, are the ones who should be. People who are supposed to have all the answers and be able to help everyone else may view their own difficulties as a sign of incompetence or failure…” (2003: 129)
Maslach, Christina. (2003.) “Burnout.” Malor Books: Massachusetts, USA.
Our helping professionals deserve more and there is so much more we can do to support them. I describe my own experiences in the hope they are used to spark a conversation about burnout, compassion fatigue and trauma. I hope I support helping professionals as they perform their essential and demanding work each day. I hope I encourage organisations to look at more proactive ways of supporting their employees and providing workplaces that are both physically and psychologically safe.
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- Selfless: a helping professional who learned not to be - July 26, 2017