My stomach was giving trouble for weeks, months even. “I must remember to avoid peas, I told myself”, thinking I had developed an intolerance.
I was working in a wonderful supportive team with vulnerable young people in secure care. It was my first full time job after college and I was really enjoying the work. I’d worked in a variety of places through college including retail, hospitality, and administration but this was the first time I felt like I was doing something meaningful, in fact, it didn’t really feel like work at all. That’s not to say it wasn’t difficult. There were great days and there were terrible days. The days were long and there were no real breaks. The young people we worked with presented with an array of issues and challenges and staff had many different approaches. My approach, inexperienced as I was, was to know the rules and policies inside and out. My professional judgement was not developed enough to be relied upon yet so this was the best approach for me. I also leaned on my more experienced colleagues a lot. To say this role was stressful was an understatement. I managed my stress levels by offloading to family and friends, by engaging in physical exercise and relaxation techniques. However, inside me was a drive to do well, be perfect, avoid incidents on duty and help the young people. These things meant that I would be thinking about the day, long after I left the workplace. My confidence was deteriorating due to the unrealistic expectations I had on myself. I started to become anxious, watchful, hyper-vigilant about risks and every time I had time off, I came down with a cold or other illness. My stomach was constantly in knots and I wanted to leave social care behind and try something else. These feelings built up gradually, but by the time I was 12 months in the role, I finally realised it was time to seek help. I was burned out and started to resent the job and everything about it. I felt that it was a failure on my part, that I was supposed to be helping others and that I should know how to help myself, or that I should be stronger than this.
Speaking to an EAP counsellor was great. I was able to get everything off my chest and realise the impact of the role on my health. He assisted me to develop a plan to rebuild my confidence and decide how to move forward. I was able to see the bigger picture and how I fit into it. I knew that I enjoyed social care, but the particular client group was not right for me personally. After a few months of rebuilding my confidence in that role, and a nice holiday, I started working with adults with intellectual disabilities. “I’ll do this for five years”, I told myself. It was the right move for me and I stayed there for almost fifteen years.
Being able to recognise signs and symptoms of stress within yourself is vitally important to be able to take corrective action. It is different for everybody. For me, I learned over time to let go of perfection, to leave work issues at work (for the most part!) and to know when I need to make a change. There have been other occasions when I needed assistance to get me through difficult times, but I did not feel ashamed seeking help. I have at times been able to recognise stress and burnout in others and would always support them and encourage them to seek help. Talking about my own experiences has sometimes given others the courage to seek help from the EAP or elsewhere. I would encourage everyone to talk about their experiences of stress and burnout in social care and normalise seeking and receiving support.
Take care x