‘The more that workers are cared for, nurtured and protected the more they will be able to provide this for the children they serve.’
(Ferguson, 2005, pp.794)
I have wanted to write a blog about this topic for a while. As both a social worker and researcher, I have been struck over recent years how much we care and advocate for the children and families we work with, but how inconsistent and ad hoc the care is we afford ourselves, each other and our multi-agency colleagues.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t a well-replenished cake and biscuit cupboard or table in every team room, or that the team group-text isn’t filled with enough support and encouragement to get you through to Friday. However, as our roles become increasingly complex and resources continue to diminish, we have to ask the question, if this is really enough?
Extra-familial harm - additional stressors
This question is as important now as ever, in particular for those working with young people at risk of, or experiencing, extra-familial harm and/or exploitation (criminal and/or sexual). In the statutory sector, by and large, we are yet to appropriately respond to the wellbeing needs of those working in such an emotionally charged and stressful environment, where to be effective requires individuals to be resilient enough to consistently empathise and authentically connect with the people they work with.
This is required at all times, even when individuals are working in an environment where the young people who open up to them, or their team members, are being raped, sexually abused, exploited, stabbed, going missing and being seriously injured on a regular basis. Obviously, in addition to this, practitioners are also responsible for striking the correct balance between spending quality time with all the young people they work with, ensuring they prioritise case supervision and reflection, completing the necessary paperwork and attending multiple meetings. Time management is an art form in itself and comes with its own stresses.
Clearly a lot of the challenges mentioned above are the same for all safeguarding practitioners and I would argue for better support for all safeguarding colleagues across the multi-agency spectrum. It is also not my intention to pitch one set of worker’s needs against another. Nevertheless, as this blog is written through the lens of extra-familial harm, I think it is reasonable to state that there are some differences that need to be considered. For example, in an extra-familial harm and exploitation context all young people open to the team are at risk of, or have experienced, sexual abuse, rape, violence, exploitation and/or threats to life. Also, the systems, policies and structures that guide the work in this area of practice (and provide some level of security) are still developing and in most local areas they are yet to fully be understood or embedded. Therefore, the fluidity of this area of practice adds an often unrecognised vulnerability and stress for practitioners, a vulnerability that is pervasive and difficult to articulate.
Resilient and supported practitioners
In 2015-2017 I was the development lead for a Greater Manchester child sexual exploitation (CSE) innovation project, Achieving Change Together (ACT). As part of this team we worked alongside research partners including Research in Practice and The Children’s Society, as well as young survivors of CSE, all of which contributed to the design of the service, which now forms part of Greater Manchester’s approach to complex safeguarding. One of the many valuable lessons I took from this fantastic project was ‘Principle 6’ from the Research in Practice Working Effectively to Address Child Sexual Exploitation: Evidence Scope.
Principle 6 provided, in the clearest terms, the evidence to support what we have known for a long time that professionals have needs too. Therefore, if we are to support our young people effectively we also need to support our workers and managers effectively too.
In summary, it states that effective services require resilient and supported practitioners, including:
- The emotional impact [on practitioners] is recognised by service leaders, and this understanding is reflected in strategy, policy and leadership practice.
- Practitioners across agencies receive high-quality reflective supervision which supports them to develop critical thinking skills, assessment skills and promotes their resilience.
- Attention is paid to the impact [of work] when allocating cases, structuring services and planning staff recruitment and retention activity.
- Service leaders proactively create a culture where resilience is promoted across the workforce, and are alert to the practice pitfalls, poor judgement and ‘blind spots’ (which can emerge in part due to diminished practitioner resilience).
- High-quality learning and development opportunities are provided…which go beyond formal training to include structured peer support, group supervision and involvement in service development.
- The quality and impact of supervision and of learning and development is evaluated.
Practitioner wellbeing at the heart
If we accept the premise of ‘Principle 6’, then we agree that to serve our young people and families well, we need to do right by our practitioners and their supervisors. With this in mind, it is perhaps time that we place the care and wellbeing of our practitioners and supervisors as central as promoting the care and wellbeing of the children and families we work with. Arguably, one cannot be achieved without the other. Considering how we can embed the above six points in our individual teams and organisations may be the first step in this direction.