No Crisis? What to do about a lull in work

I know I’m tempting fate but it was a quiet weekend – no new referrals. I may find that by the time I get in a whole host of chaotic events may have occurred, but I doubt it beyond the usual casework issues that arise.

So to explain, I lead a team of child protection workers and we are one of two initial assessment teams for a district in Perth. The two teams take turns with new referrals and this week is our week.

The week can range from “holy shit, they’re coming right for us” to Jeff Lebowski-like calm.

Do we do nothing? Nope, there is plenty of work to be done I’m sure, for me and my team. This isn’t an army like situation of asking them to clean coal. 

What I can do is help prioritise some other smaller pieces of work that have been lingering. Maybe some recent allocations that haven’t got off the ground yet. Maybe sight a child or family that have been elusive.

So getting into work my first job is to confirm whether it’s as quiet as it looks. All being good, I can then review existing cases and make a decision about tasks to prioritise.

I communicate this to the response workers for today, with some broad suggestions for tasks to be undertaken. Generally though, I prefer the workers to plan the case, as an exercise in assessment.

I can review the situation over the course of the day, in case urgent issues arise.

The point of all this is simply that a lull in work does mean a lull in prioritising. I want to keep the response workers active in case something does come up. If they are too heavily focused on their own cases then they might become unavailable, even though they are still doing their job. It allows for responsiveness in case crisis does develop, and in child protection that’s critical.

Social Work 101

I was brainstorming some ideas yesterday for articles to write. While I’m keen to build a fiction portfolio, I would also like to maintain a professional one too. I’ve got skills and experience (I would like to think), and it seems sensible to make use of them. I suppose there’s also a small practical reason, and that’s writers don’t make a lot of money. Maintaining a professional career is sensible for all sorts of reasons.

I managed a short list of about 30 single or two word ideas. My next plan was to build on these and maybe merge some into workable descriptions. I thought I’d start with a one-liner (25 words or less description of the article) before expanding to a more detailed paragraph.

As it happens, while doing this exercise, I remembered that I had toyed with an idea for a social work book a few years ago, called Social Work 101. The idea was to write 101 tips for aspiring social workers, based on practical issues that arise soon after qualification. Usually the problem being a ‘they didn’t teach us that in our course’ issue.

I couldn’t find the list on computer, but luckily had a hard copy. More ideas basically. I mention this because it reawakens the idea in my mind to develop a book, but it’s also a rich stock of ideas I have ruminated on in the past. For now I’ll focus on articles, and this list gives me more options.

So, getting back to subject, once I’ve developed those paragraphs I can start researching online. It’s possible someone’s written about the topic previously (although social work is not awash with publications), or give me ideas for a new angle. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the ‘Top 10 tips for…’ type of article either.

I could publish the articles myself online, on this blog for example, but that’s not a direction I want to go in. This isn’t about a regular stream of work (I’m paid a good wage for that). This is about a professional project on the side.

I’ll peruse the 101 list to get some more ideas. I’m conscious that I’m more focused on planning activities right now than actually doing them, so I need to move this forward lest I get sucked into eternal planning and no delivery.

Back to work after illness

A day and a half off work after being ill, on my duty week. I doubt this is going to look pretty when I get back. At low intensity of work it is manageable, but it was shaping up as quite busy when I went home.

When I return I expect to find a certain level of chaos, but here’s an important thing – the chaos isn’t real. 

Imagine you go for a swim in reasonably choppy waters. As you wade in you are buffeted by the strong tides, and as you get deeper you are hit with the swell a few times. Do you drown? Assuming you are a competent swimmer, the answer is no. You get used to the swell, you start to swim so the waves don’t affect you so much. Try to just float in place will leave you disorientated by the swell, and it won’t feel you’ve got anywhere. You could leave, but then you’ll get buffeted as you get out of the water, and the swell and tides will still be there.

Coming back to work is the same. The first waves of work will be panicky “OMG” moments. If I try to just tread water and deal with what I’ve missed then it’ll leave me bring disorientated. I need to move on and push forward, not getting overwhelmed by what’s waiting. 

First off, I need to review my calendar. What appointments and meetings do I have? How much available time do I have? Meetings that looked important before, are they still necessary now? What about over the next two weeks? How much spare time is building up? I know off the top of my head that the next two days were pretty much booked up before I went off sick. It’s not likely I’ll have much spare time before end of week. In some ways though that may help. It’ll be easier to prioritise work in that fashion, compared to having a glut of spare time. I don’t want to get too distracted with trying to juggle all the priorities and decisions people will come to me with in the first hour. It sounds counter intuitive, but less spare time makes it easier to prioritise and make decisions. So calendar review is the first task.

My next task is to empty my email inbox. This doesn’t mean totally dealing with every email. It means prioritising follow-up (flagging) and putting them in the right folders. I can only deal with so much so I don’t want to overburden myself (and risk further illness).

All this needs to happen in the first twenty to thirty minutes. I know off the top of my head that my appointments start from 9am, so everything needs to be set to fall back into the normal routine as quickly as possible – start swimming almost as soon as I am in the water.

At this stage most of my team will be in, I’ll have the opportunity to do a round robin and see how staff are going. This isn’t about discussing caseloads at this point. It’s merely tracking how they are doing. I believe that teams reflect the state of their leader. If the leader is ill, then in some respects, I anticipate some signs of disorder or drag. The extent if this depends on length of illness, but also training and state of mind of the team. I’m co fide the in my team, so I’m hoping despite the pressures they’ll be doing pretty well, but there a lot of factors. So I want to be able to assess how the team is feeling, gauge it’s sense of cohesiveness. I need to be disciplined to prevent a flurry of requests for decisions there and then, but I also need to be responsive to any anxieties or worries. Most of all, they’ve got to feel I’m ready to deal with whatever needs attending to.

I’ll also want to catch up with the team leader that’ll have been covering in my absence. I’ll just get the brief lowdown – the profession is rife with story telling (excessively describing case history rather than case situation). My colleague will have made a number of decisions in my absence. I’ll want to know what those are, but under no circumstances will I question them. I have little time for people that second guess my decisions without context, and I give my colleagues the same courtesy. My colleague will have had to take on responsibility for my team at short notice, so it would be unfair and unprofessional to query ‘why’ in this scenario. It’s also a form of procrastination to avoid decisions that need to be made in the future.

There are some bureaucratic issues to resolve, but better to get them done. So personal leave request. I’m also considering an OSH report. I was ill for reasons I couldn’t pin down on an physical illness, but I do know I felt a little better shortly after I left even if some other symptoms developed later that day. I work in a highly pressurised environment and vicarious trauma is common. Yes, I am talking about mental health. An OSH report is the best way to reflect this, and being a social worker I encourage opened about this issue. I am aware of the perceptions (people still call it “stress leave” which to me reflects s form of victim blaming), but the best way to tackle the issue is to call it out.

So that covers it. It sounds like a lot to do in short space of time (less than an hour), but delayed or stretched out process leads to even longer degradation of work. I might as well stay off sick if I’m going to do nothing for the whole morning but focus on the previous two days. In this profession we consistently deal with situations that occur outside of our control; unforeseen crises and dilemmas. The importance in those moments is to absorb the new information, reassess, analyse and make a decision. Personal leave is no different in that scenario as an unexpected event, so there’s no reason to get caught by the swell treading water.

Published at last, so what’s next?

Finally got published, with a short article about agile decision making (or scrums, as they are called – the article is here p22).

As pleasing as it is, a couple of things strike me. One, in typically reflective practice style, is considering all the things wrong with the article. A few words are repeated a little too often (at one point I honestly thought I wrote the same sentence twice). 

The second is, what next? My particular writing interest is fiction writing, but maybe I need to supplement that experience with non-fiction subject matter. Get myself in a grove. Mansplain under the guise of professional guidance and advice (I’m joking in a way, but it is a source of anxiety for me that I often sound like I’m mansplaining, particularly as I work with so many female colleagues).

I can identify a few avenues of professional writing, and subject matter, but I need to make sure I stay motivated to keep going. One article becomes two, two becomes four etc.

It all seems so complicated. It’s not just the writing. It’s about self promotion, getting out there on social media, building networks. I’d rather have a glass of wine. It seems so tiring.

And what’s my angle? Everything looks the same, but everyone talks about having a particular angle. Is the quirky angle a myth? Is everyone successful really more mundane? I think I’m looking at this through the wrong prism.

I’ll have to chew it over. In the short term, I’ll just take pleasure in the article and think about the next one.

Better Than Life

Augmented reality, social work hell, and why politics is still a numbers game.

So today I read this article. It suggests that we are in a computer simulation.

I’m a social worker, spending somewhere around 5-6 hours of my working day on a computer, swallowed in a world of reports, kpi’s, and totally extraneous fucking emails that heavily imply the sender wants direction from you with passive aggressive hints while c.c.ing you so confusingly suggesting the email is for information only…also, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, Safari, Guardian app. I am already in an augmented reality.
Maybe I should change my name to Mr Anderson. 

Speaking of augmented reality, I am keeping half an eye on the EU referendum count in the UK. The first few results are trickling in. They are showing Leave doing far better than expected. There had been some Remain optimism in the final days and from the news updates on the evening itself. Leave supporters were conceding. I have to say, I trust the results more at this point, but it’s still early days as I write.

There’s been a clear move by right wing campaigners over the past few years to underplay their hand, despite being secretly confident of winning. This is because it makes their result look even better. I remember during the Crewe by-election in 2008 the Tories were claiming it would be a big shock if they were to win. As a Labour activist on the ground I saw how much trouble the party was in. It had previously been held by a Labour MP who had been popular (the late Gwyneth Dunwoody). It became clear to me that it was a safe Dunwoody seat, not a strong Labour one. Demographics worked against the party and it was deeply unpopular at that time. Any objective analysis would quickly conclude the Tories would sweep the result. Of course, the shock win version was allowed to flourish. 

There’s an underlying pattern here though about confidence in politics. I think politicians are losing their mettle, certainly compared to their forebears. It’s a product of the risk orientated neoliberalism from the 1980’s, and the erosion of expert opinion. In sociology this is referred to as postmodernism – (western) society becoming increasingly eclectic. Since opinion is more fluid, politicians adapt that way too. They swing more by the desires of what people want than by setting a leadership stand. Therefore their self confidence wanes.

Would like to write more on this, but Fremantle beckons as my bus ride draws near to my stop.

Enjoy your augmented reality, or just take a walk for a dose of realism. Either way, take care for now.