1.2 Coping with feelings of distress
In considering Cassie and the team’s work in Activity 1 you will have identified features of the situation which are likely to make them feel anxious, distressed or possibly even scared. You might have identified supervision as a place where Cassie or her colleagues could seek support and take their feelings. Martin Smith (2005) argues that a common, although frequently unacknowledged, feature of social work practice is dealing with one’s own feelings of fear or distress. These emotions can arise in everyday contexts: sometimes they emerge unexpectedly and can appear irrational. Sometimes they may be influenced by our past experiences. It can be difficult to explain to others why we are distressed; or we may feel too embarrassed and vulnerable to share our emotional reactions. In these circumstances, writing about the incident and our feelings can be helpful. Activity 2 invites you to try this out.
Activity 2 Reflecting on distressing situations at work: what helps?
Think of a time when you felt distressed (anxious, scared or upset) at work or in a personal context. Use the text box provided to write a reflective account of this. Write down what happened to make you distressed; describe your emotions at the time; recall what helped and what made things worse; and explain how you eventually resolved your distress. At the time, what did you need from your manager/organisation? Was this need met?
Your reflective account is for your own private use, unless you choose to share it with your practice educator/assessor or someone else that you trust. Find out what support is available within your organisation for social workers who have experienced a distressing or frightening incident.
In day-to-day practice, it is common for staff to have fears and anxieties about many things, including worries about their personal competence or their ability to cope. Unpredictable, emotionally-charged events may also cause distress and fear. Smith (2005) found that distress can also arise from organisational issues, to do with bullying, complaints or fear of negative media publicity. Writing about these experiences can be a helpful coping strategy. Individual reflection (or, if it feels safe, with another person) can help you gain insight into the strengths that you drew on in resolving the issue.
Let’s consider the example of Cathy, a social work student on placement in a hospice. Despite initial trepidation she found her new colleagues welcoming and supportive. Just as Cathy was beginning to feel more relaxed in the team, she arrived one morning to hear that a patient who had regularly been coming in for respite care had died suddenly. During the course of the day, Cathy found herself feeling more and more upset and eventually had to leave a meeting in tears. One of the social workers took her out for coffee. As Cathy talked about how embarrassed she felt and how she couldn’t understand why she had reacted in this way, she realised that something about the patient’s death had unexpectedly aroused strong feelings about a loss in her own family. Having gained this insight, Cathy was able to talk more openly in supervision about the emotional impact of working in a setting where terminal illness was commonplace.
In Cathy’s case the supportive and open culture of the team made it easier for colleagues to respond to her distress, and safe for emotion to be on the agenda in supervision. How does this supportive environment compare with the incident you wrote about?
Smith’s (2005) research revealed that social workers’ experiences of distress and fear have disabling consequences. One of his observations was that if difficult feelings are acknowledged, and if practitioners are supported to process them, this can lead to personal and professional growth. On the other hand, he acknowledged that some people choose to cope with their experiences of fear by not thinking or talking about them: in this case, their choice should be respected.
Activity 1 highlights that managers have a responsibility and a duty of care towards their staff, and it is important that organisational cultures are created where anxieties and fears – real or imagined, minor or significant – are recognised, validated and responded to appropriately.