Be The Change

Institutional Culture is a term batted around by leadership and systems experts.  The widely held belief that organizational change begins from the top down is indisputable.  I concur that if the CEO does not share the passion for the mission, that lack of passion will trickle down to the staff.  But let’s not discount the power of the hidden leaders.  I also believe that leadership at the ground level can effect real change.  I have seen this first hand.

Jeff (not his real name) had been a Social Worker for several years, experiencing the pendulum swing from stability to crisis and back to stability multiple times.  During one season, the agency received an unusually large influx of new cases to be assessed.  The already overburdened workers were ready to give up.  Without informing any leadership staff, he called a meeting of his fellow workers.  Encouraging them and giving them pointers on how he survived similar crises, he was able to give hope.  The panic subsided and the cases were assessed.  No one quit.

That is a leader who began the work of instituting cultural change from the ground up.  When approached about becoming a supervisor, this same SW declined, stating he felt he could affect change more effectively in his current situation.

Karen (not her real name) worked with foster children.  She noticed that the 3 new workers assigned to her unit seemed lost.  Her supervisor was temporarily supervising two units due to staffing issues.  Karen decided to help.  As a foster care worker for years, she had established a good relationship with the community and the courts.  She offered to mentor the new workers and her supervisor gladly accepted the idea.  Karen went with them on a few difficult home visit, modeled engagement and talk them through their questions.  As a result, the workers became more confident and less anxious.

Neither of these workers changed the world.  Neither of them changed the very large agency in which they were employed.  But they did make a difference in their sphere of influence.  Their actions were pebbles tossed into a pond.  A ripple began.  And what they didn’t know was that people were watching and learning.  See, ripples tend to grow and multiply until the entire pond is affected.

You can affect the culture of your institution. When hard times come, you will hear the complaints, the rumors, the prophesies of doom.  You can join in and watch as the fear and negativity choke the life out of you and your peers. Or you can use your experience and influence to affect an understanding of how to make it through.  You can offer hope. You can affect a change in the culture.  

You will observe your peers floundering at times by indecision on a difficult case or just with inexperience and lack of confidence.  It’s ok to do nothing.  You have too many cases yourself.  You are trying to survive as well.  I understand.  There is nothing wrong with that.  But you could also take a few minutes, use your knowledge, skills and experience to hold their hand, guiding them through the rough spot.  You can shape their mindset about the job and help build their skills and their confidence.  You can affect a change in the culture.

Leadership is not just a lofty title that comes with a corner office. Leadership is action.  And leadership occurs at every level of staff.  When you are experiencing those difficult times, I challenge you.  Don’t just cry out for the change.  Be The change.

When Storm Clouds Gather

I took this picture from my office one day as I watched a rather nasty storm approach.  Severe weather has triggered a nervous reaction in me since the day my family and I were awakened early one morning to the sound of a tornado approaching our house.  The house suffered major damage, but we did not. However, the experience did leave me more weather anxious.  Yet, on this day, as I watched this storm approach, I felt calm.  I felt prepared.  I knew what to do if it spawned a tornado because my agency had a plan for weather.  Better yet, the staff was aware of the plan and had practiced it in other storms, proving its success.  

As a Social Worker, you will face “storms” every day.   Caseloads for Social Workers around the nation are already too high.  Compounded by  the expectation of the depth of work required to facilitate real and lasting change, the task can seem overwhelming.  It has been proven that inability to achieve expected outcomes causes anxiety and stress, leading to the high worker burn out and turnover rates across the country.  You came to this profession to make a difference but sometimes everything going on around you hinders you from doing all that needs to be done. 

And your fellow workers, who couldn’t keep going,  left for clearer skies. You were left to pick up their cases simply because you were still there. But it is not just another case file you were handed.  No, it was  a child or family who will have to experience another worker,  another viewpoint and often a delay in permanency.  These delays serve to further damage a child’s ability to engage or trust anyone. And you know that you carry the added burden of responsibility for more lives and must shoulder the very real fear of missed cues that could affect safety.  These dark thoughts, swirling like debris in your mind as you see the storm coming, make you afraid. 

Conversely, seasoned workers, supervisors and management will likely have weathered similar storms before.  Although the situation is  still extremely stressful, and the same reality threatens their stability, the anxiety does not overtake them.  These veterans know that though the chaos rages around them, if they keep going, they will get through the storm.  They know that the experience will be very difficult, but they will survive

But if you are experiencing the roar for the first time and have nothing to draw from,  you may worry that you will be consumed by the raging wind.  Your confidence is shaken as you lose your foothold.  Without support, guidance and assurance tethering you, grounding you; you feel you will not make It.  What can you do?

It is inevitable that storms will come and go in a SW career.  But they do not have to devastate.  How can we overcome these periodic storms?

Successfully  weathering a crisis takes the engagement and trust of the whole agency.  Seasoned workers can be very supportive of the newer ones who are anxious about what is going on around them.  By sharing their experiences and how they survived the previous storms, they can facilitate belief that it can be done.  Managers can speak openly about the crisis plan and what is in place to help and support staff through it.  Knowing how the storm developed and being supported during it will help you get through.  

But your survival also rests on you.  Ask for assurances from the veterans.  Speak up to your supervisor of your need for extra support and guidance.  Cultivate a peer support group so that you can stand together.  Each crisis you weather builds your resiliency to face the next.  For I promise you, storms do not last forever.  And at the other end lies the sun.

Hate is a Cancer

“Hate is a cancer, slowly killing everything it touches.  Hate is the product of fear and an inability to apply reason to maladaptive beliefs.   Hate is the culmination of rhetoric spewed by dangerous people on the lost and gullible.  And we, who see hate for what it is, cannot be silent.” Angela McClintock 8.13.17.

Why did I quote myself?  Hubris?  No.  I want to make a point that if we, who abhor racism, violence, hatred in any form, do not go “on the record with our protests; we are choosing to look the other way.  There are multitudes of examples of small minded self important leaders who influence other small minded individuals to follow them down a dark and dangerous rabbit hole.  These people are not a majority but they thrive when the majority is silent.  Our silence allows their message to be heard.

One of the tenets of Social Work is Social Justice.  We believe in and are dedicated to holding high the banner proclaiming the worth and dignity of every human being with no regard to their race, ethnicity or religious belief.  Silence, on the other hand speaks volumes.

The water for camels blog was designed for encouragement.  But in light of recent events, I cannot encourage without challenging.  One voiced raised in outrage makes little noise.  It is an easily ignored annoyance swatted away like a mosquito.  But each voice added makes a difference.  Each new outcry creates a harmonic thread that builds crescendo to a cacophony of NO!!  

It is time for the voices of hate to be drowned out by the message of hope.  Will you sing with us?

The Best Medicine

I met Brenda (Not her real name) on her first day with the agency.  She was on fire to make a difference in the world through her role as a social worker.  I remember that her energy was contagious and her drive to do good was solid. My first thought on meeting her was “this young lady will really shine!” She was not assigned to my particular program so I did not see her again for a couple of years. When I did see her again I did not recognize her. She looked ten years older and appeared apathetic about the case we were discussing.  I knew something very wrong must have happened in her life.  I pulled her aside and asked her if all was well with her.  All she said was “It’s too much. I can’t do this by myself.”

Social Work Burn out, Compassion Fatigue, or Secondary Traumatic Stress.  Call it what you will but it is a very real side-effect of Social Work.  See if you can recognize these symptoms.  (Not all inclusive)

  • Increased sick days
  • Flashbacks of cases/people you have worked with
  • Decreased Productivity
  • Increased Irritability
  • Projecting a sense of “not caring”
  • Increased family conflict
  • Marked weight gain/loss
  • Increased alcohol consumption
  • Depression

This stage marks the point where social workers quit.  Seeing no relief to those feelings they flee the very mission that once gave them purpose.

What leads an excited new social worker to this low?  There are multiple variables related to individual agencies, policies and politics.   These external factors can restrict a social worker’s ability to do the level of work they feel they need to do to meet the needs of their clients. Those variables are real, but different to each agency.

Internal variables are even more powerful and affect Social Workers profoundly.  All social workers listen to, observe and take on the trauma of others in Crisis.  They see children burned or beaten.  They listen as a mother recounts a horrific rape.  What a heavy burden they bear every day! And to further the stress, these workers are expected at all times to know the right answers and make critical decisions without making a mistake.   They are often told, “A mistake can mean someone’s life.”  As social workers we deal with the abuse and sometimes murder of children. We listen to elderly adult victims tell us how they suffered at the hands of their own children.  We try to assure terrified foster children that the stranger’s home they will be living in will be safe.  And it all piles on our shoulders.

How do we process all the trauma, grief, anger and fear we deal with daily without running away ourselves to a safe place? In my career, I have seen support groups for every disease, social conditions and addictions.  What I have never seen is a support group for those social workers experiencing vicarious trauma.  Until one exists we must find our own self care plan so that we can continue with our purpose.

There are many proven ways to manage self-care in high risk jobs including healthy lifestyle changes, exercising, journaling, and self talk.  I will focus on one that is simple and may seem incongruent with the job.  But it is a tremendous stress reliever to me.  Laughter.  I love to laugh.  It releases tension and stress from my body.  I work in a serious field with real life trauma. How can I laugh?

When I was over the Investigation and Family Preservation programs,  every day brought new stress.  I found myself chained to my desk dealing with the cases, the state office and the community every day.  I felt like I could not afford to take a break. I ate lunch at my desk and plowed through the mountainous tasks in front of me. I was burning out fast.  One day, a colleague came to my office and asked if I wanted to eat lunch with her.  I really didn’t have the time (I thought) but I went.  During lunch we started to get to know each other and found we were alike in many ways.  She had a dry sense of humor that made me laugh. What an amazing feeling!  The more I laughed, the more I could feel the stress leaving my body.  I returned after lunch with renewed energy to complete the tasks before me.   Of course the stress came right back the next day.  However, after that day,  lunch together became a source of daily stress relief as we always found a reason to laugh.  We laughed at things our children had done, current events and even at ourselves.  We challenged each other’s maladaptive beliefs that the world would fall apart if we weren’t at the helm.  It was both humbling and incredibly freeing.   When she left the agency, I was devastated.  But,  I knew I had to keep the practice up and find others to break up the day with laughter. And I not only did that, but kept my friend on speed dial for much needed pick me ups.

Some would say that I simply developed a support system, which is another research proven stress reliever.  Of course I did.  But what I remember most of my time with that colleague was not just the support, which was huge.  It was the laughter.  Reach out to each other.  Get a lunch group together. Find things to laugh about.  Give yourself permission to let go of the trauma…at least for a that time you are together.  Find the ridiculosity in the world…and laugh.

This Little Light of Mine

Being a Social Worker sometimes means dealing with a darkness that many people will never see.  And those people are happier for it.  I have had friends and associates tell me multiple times that they don’t want to think about the things social workers address every day.  I understand.  So, why do social workers choose a career fraught with secondary trauma?  Because they want to make a difference.  They want to share their light.  

When I investigated sexual abuse against children, the atrocities I investigated every day could have easily led me to a dark place.  Working with the “non-offending” family members, I often got frustrated by the blinders some of them would put on to avoid the ugly truth living right in their own homes.  I had to learn that while certainly normal to feel that frustration, I could not allow those feelings to lead me to a place of blame.  Blaming without knowing the deeper truths in each family could easily hinder me from engaging with the family to help them discover or strengthen their own protective capacities.  After years of working with these types of families I learned that the dark secrets were often part of a cycle handed down from parent to child.  To address and admit that it was in their own house, they would have to address that the same thing had happened to them when they were children.  However, by engaging and building trust, rather than judging, I was often able to partner with the family and link them to the interventions needed to bring light to that cycle and to help them begin the healing process.

Social Workers deal with cycles of abuse every day.  They see children caught up in domestic violence, drug abuse and emotional abuse.  They work with children who have been physically harmed by the people who they look to for safety. These workers, walking into those dark places,  are able to shine the light on how past hurt and pain can lead to perpetuating that abuse. Without that light, the cycle most likely would continue.

  Desmond Tutu said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness”. In our world, we see the light in the people we serve when others see only the darkness.  And the families we serve, often are hopeless, and have only seen the future through a black veil. 

Social Workers:  You help them see a glimpse of a what could be.  You are sharing hope. Keep shining the light in the darkness.  The cost is high but the intrinsic benefits are many.  By restoring hope, you bring light…by sharing hope you Are the light.

Where You Sit on the Boat

When I think about how much, as a social worker, I must accomplish in a day, a week, or a month just to stay above water, the enormity of each task can be daunting. Even when I was a  field worker, there were always deadlines looming.  There were families to be seen; hearings to attend; reports to write; vendors to pay and so many meetings.  When I think of  the demands on each staff, whether they are a worker or a director, I often wonder how anything gets accomplished at all.  Clients depend on us to help them navigate their crisis while helping them to develop transferable skills for coping, parenting and communicating.  Our superiors depend on us to complete the mounds of paperwork associated with every single aspect of the job.  And, the community expects us to keep children safe and families together without making a single mistake. 

 Whew!!!  THAT IS A LOT OF PRESSURE!

Social Workers, it should come as no surprise,  sometimes just give up when they can’t see a way to do it all.  They just can’t vision the finish line.  

A staff member and I were discussing a project that had been ongoing for months.  We seemed to take a few steps ahead just to encounter a barrier which would force us to take a step back. She told me that day  that she felt like she was in an old rowboat.  She had been rowing so long, but the shore was still so far away she didn’t think she could reach it.

I told her that was because of where she was sitting in the boat.  Granted the lake (project) was huge and the boat had hit some logs along the way.  But she was facing the oncoming shore and it still looked so impossible to reach. I told her if she turned and looked at the beach she had started from, she would notice that it was even further away.  She was more than halfway there.  I also pointed out some of the successes she had already achieved during the process. A smile crossed her face and She admitted She hadn’t been thinking about all the successes her team had achieved in the process.  She left with renewed determination to keep rowing that boat.

Your vantage point is important.  The perspective from which you view your situation can build you up or it can tear you down. It is also very important to celebrate small successes. When a child learns ways to express anger and fear without lashing out; that is a success.  When a homeless mother gets an apt and learns to make and live within a budget: that is a success.  Take the time to celebrate even if no one else does. And, when you think you cannot go another step, I challenge you.  Look how far you have already come.

Watering the Camels

Who are the Modern Day Heroes?  They are the ones who willingly take on the trauma of others in order to help those individuals transcend their current situation.  These heroes are the  Social Workers, Therapists and other service professionals who do not get praise or recognition for their acts of service. They are not publically lauded for their sacrifice.  Men, Women, Families and Children come to them or are referred every day when their current life crisis becomes too much to bear.  And these professionals take up the challenge to join with the hurting on the journey to healing.  However, stalking them on the path to healing, is Pain and Trauma.  From my experience, trauma is like an airborn virus.  Exposure leads to infection. Therefore, helping someone to navigate the thorns of Trauma, often leaves the helper covered in scratches.

Like a Camel, the social worker must shoulder unbelievably heavy burdens in the desert.  But instead of sand, they wade through negativity, blame and criticism.  The “Water” of encouragement comes scarcely or not at all.  Every day a social worker, exhausted and dessicated from lack of replenishment, falter, drop their burdens and leave their mission.  Self preservation motivates this departure.

Interestingly, just a few drops can sustain the walk.  A word of praise or encouragement, a successful intervention, even a moment of laughter can slake the thirst and move them forward. My desire for this blog is to offer “Water” to these heroes with encouragement, positive framing and recounting stories of successful interventions.

Let this be an Oasis.