What about us?
I am writing this as I lie on the settee, on a Sunday morning, after too much wine with my girlfriends the night before. It was a great night, but in the early hours of the morning, the conversation turned to be about me. I had asked the question ‘Is it wrong for me to be suspicious about why a boy in my street always arrives at school ahead of time but his younger sister always arrives late with her Dad?’ I was immediately and quite correctly, challenged by one of my friends who was appalled at my suspicion, with absolutely no evidence base, that the underlying reason could be one of sexual abuse. Another friend asked me what I planned to do about it. I replied, ‘Nothing! There is no evidence of anything happening, just an uneasy feeling on my part.’
So, I reiterated my first question, ‘Is it wrong for me to be suspicious?’ We know that these things happen behind closed doors, in families which, from the outside, appear to be functioning well. Sometimes other family members living in the same house do not even realise what is going on!
We never did answer my question, because we started talking about whether the work I have done over the past 20 years has had an impact on me. Reading, discussing and writing about the traumatic experiences of individuals – neglect, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Reading, discussing and writing about individuals’ behaviours that have in turn harmed others – harmful sexual behaviour such as rape, sexual assault and incest, violence such as murder and knife crime, dangerous driving, stalking, abduction, sadistic torture… Perhaps unsurprisingly, I think I can clearly say that my work has affected how suspicious I am about other people.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, I have slowly become aware of the impact it has also had on my own wellbeing. A few months ago, after my husband asked me why I was always so annoyed for no reason, I went to my GP and said that I thought I might be depressed. My reasons – feeling exhausted, as if I was on a hamster wheel that I could not get off; feeling constantly irritated by the non-stop household chores and requests from my kids; and waking up feeling as if I hadn’t slept. I was prescribed medication and within a few weeks, I felt so much better. The greyness that had been hanging over me had disappeared; I had renewed energy and had started to achieve more with my days. I was also happier, because without even realising, my high standards had slipped – I was taking time to sit down and read a book rather than stomping about the house making sure it was immaculate.
Now that the cloud had lifted, I had more space to think about how I had been feeling. I realised that I hadn’t particularly been depressed but I had been extremely anxious about everything (or maybe there was even an element of vicarious trauma). Every second of my life was accounted for – rushing to get to work on time, worrying about getting home to pick the kids up on time. I was anxious at work – Was my work good enough? Was I competent enough? I was anxious about what people thought of me – Did they like me? Did I meet their expectations? I had also stopped reading newspapers and listening to the news because they seemed to be full of stories about crimes and I was always concerned that one of the people I was working with might have been involved. My heart still starts racing when I hear a certain popular ringtone – the ringtone from my old on-call phone. No wonder I had felt exhausted.
So, what could have helped prevent this? I would say better supervision, but you need to receive regular supervision in the first place before it can be better. What would have helped is managers who prioritised staff welfare more, and the provision of regular high quality supervision, which is the one thing that falls off most people’s agenda when we are so busy.
As I lie here a tad hungover, I think it is time that some of us ask ‘What about us?’ If I had my time again, I would still choose the same line of work, but this time I would insist on quality supervision. Hindsight is a great thing. There will of course be staff who receive excellent supervision, and we can learn from how this is implemented in their services.
Research evidence indicates that supervision works best when it pays attention to task assistance (the supervisor’s ability to provide tangible, work-related guidance), social and emotional support (responding to emotional needs, including stress) and interpersonal interaction (supervisee’s perceptions of the quality of the relationship and the extent to which this has helped them be more effective in their work). Supervision is associated with job satisfaction and protects against stress, so if it is not already provided, practitioners should insist that they receive quality supervision from their services, particularly given the demands placed on staff in the social care field.
After all, without healthy staff, positive outcomes for service users are less likely to be achieved. The children and young people we work with need practitioners who are emotionally well, so let’s make sure that we are able to give them this through the provision of regular quality supervision.
My blog is anonymous not because I am ashamed or embarrassed about the impact the work has had on me, but to avoid publicly naming services where I have experienced poor supervision practice. Instead, I will work towards trying to improve the current provision of supervision.