I think the phrase ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’ can often be representative of social work. Whether working with adults, children, in the community, hospital or secure settings. Working with families or individuals in acute levels of distress and pain often makes it difficult to think. Whilst trying to understand the issues but at the same time trying to weigh up what will help, what will reduce risk, what will improve quality of life. In an ideal world making these type of decisions would be completed within a capped manageable caseload with robust clinical supervision to help thrash out ideas and thoughts.
The reality for social work is that this is just not the case. This is a skill of social workers which I have come to realise whilst working in a multi-disciplinary team – being able to think in often highly emotionally charged situations.
It wasn’t until I left a Local Authority Child Protection team and joined a therapeutic social work team that I was struck by the complicated nature of the children’s lives that I had previously been allocated but more so how I was expected to make sense of their situations whilst also having to think ‘what needs to change’. It was during this period of employment that I was privileged to begin to learn about developmental trauma and the impact upon life-span development. I was also able to think about the complex nature of the latter and how difficult it can be to ‘see the wood for the trees’. Service user distress is a powerful force which in my experience can make it hard to think clearly.
There were two points to my thinking:
- The impressive ability for social workers to make decisions quickly in extremely challenging situations
- Consideration how safe it is to make such decisions when at times the workload and expectations are overwhelming
This is the reality of social work and it is unlikely to change anytime soon. I am consistently impressed by social workers who display such courage and bravery to try to make change for families and individuals. My thoughts led me to wonder how easy is it to create regular protected space to think, reflect, process and plan within the social work profession.
In the various teams that I have worked we adapted and utilised some of the following models and resources to do just that provide a thinking space. These are some of the ways that I have found helpful to create my own space to think amongst the chaos.
The ‘reflective team’ is a concept derived from family therapy training and practice. We adapted the model within my current role. Members of the team attend when they can (or if they want to), complex case with a particular dilemma are presented one at a time by one individual at a time. Typically this tends to be when a case becomes stuck and it is unclear what would help to shift a family’s position. The time boundary is one hour. The team member will be interviewed by the facilitator of the group. This tends to focus upon a brief overview of the family and the difficulty in question.
Whilst this process is ongoing other members of the team take an observers position and will write down key words, quotes or ideas which might cast a fresh look at the difficulty or family’s needs. It is hoped that more thinking minds are able to generate new formulations or techniques to shift the ‘stuckness’ of the family. I genuinely have found this process to be a helpful one, one in which the fogginess appears to dissipate and I can think clearly again.
I have often sought external colleagues such as CAMHS, Youth Offending Team etc to help me to make sense of a young person/child’s behaviour or situation. Whilst all teams operate slightly differently, I think generally they all offer some form of consultation. I have always found time away from the office in a different setting with professionals from different disciplines particularly helpful to formulate around a child or family’s needs. In my experience external teams are happy to share resources or knowledge particularly if it means a family/individual will not require their specialist service.
Within all social work teams there will be individuals with specialist knowledge of particular areas of practice. I understand that sometimes it is not always possible to have the luxury of time to think about decision making or planning. However, it is often for families or individuals when the crisis has passed and it looks like things are ‘ok’ that this is the most productive time to undertake some sort of therapeutic work, they are no longer in fight or flight mode and they can be maintained within the window of tolerance to process. I believe that it can be the same for social workers, when the crisis has been resolved, taking time to take stock and ‘think’ can be so productive. I think it is helpful to share dilemmas with colleagues, external or internal. It can either validate your decision making or make you think that if certain situations arise again how you may approach it differently.
There is no perfect answer in social work; it is dynamic, free flowing and ever-changing. Social workers are resilient but also resourceful. As I have written this piece it has continued to inspire me to think about the impact of vicarious trauma upon frontline staff and how/why it does make it so hard to think clearly and to stay steady. How can we support staff to continue to make safe and well thought out decisions? How can we ensure that they are not significantly impacted by the things they have seen or the things they have heard?