The Emotional Protection from a Pandemic: Looking After Yourself as a Social Care Worker

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of stress and strain has been placed on people considered key workers. These workers are on the frontline and exposed to the pandemic firsthand. Some of them, while not directly facing the pandemic, are involved in providing services to the public wherein if these services were not provided the country would be in complete disarray.

My position is named as one of the key workers. I work in health and social care as a recovery worker for the mental health charity, Penumbra, in the Supported Living Service. In this position, I provide emotional and practical support to people with mental health difficulties and diagnoses within their homes. In my day to day life, I am travelling all over Lanarkshire and into a variety of houses and environments. Therefore, my team are very exposed to the risk of coronavirus. As are the rest of Penumbra workers whether it’s supported accommodation, supported living, crisis centres etc., Thankfully, some of us are getting the opportunity to work from home. While I am able to provide face to face support, I have that opportunity to provide telephone support at my home. Many other health and social care services are seeing a reduction in their services to ensure the safety of the patients and supported people.

However, that doesn’t stop the worries manifesting within the supported people, particularly within my service as it deals predominantly with mental health. The supported people are dealing with unprecedented levels of self-isolation with a lot of their distractions taken from them and a new threat to their safety with no end in sight. It is causing unduly amounts of stress. As a social care worker, we are often the ones to bear the brunt from the people we support. We’re prepared for most, but during a virus like this, it can be overwhelming and there may be the threat of burning out.

While you are providing care and support, at the end of it all, you have to take care of yourself. Their self-care is a reflection of yours. If you are not supporting yourself, then you cannot successfully support someone else. So, it’s important that you know how to cope.

Lone Working Doesn’t Mean All Alone

Many of us are lone workers, spending vast amounts of time by ourselves. However, we may be lone workers but that does not mean we are completely alone. We work as part of a unit overall. Some services have bigger teams than others. My team is relatively small; seven in total, which includes the practitioners and the manager. However, I understand that there may be team meetings, or opportunities for social care workers to meet up and work together therefore you are aware of each other and probably have had the chance to spend time together. Consequently, it’s important to link up with members of your team now more than ever. My team have a group chat. This allows us to keep informed about our situation and our supported people and for the same information to get to the same people at the same time. However, it also allows us to have a joke and a laugh, share good news and vent our frustrations and anxieties. We are now checking in on each other more often. It is important to maintain a level of normality while also understanding how abnormal life is right now.

In this profession, we spent a lot of time dealing with vulnerable people who are very scared and confused with what is happening. Taking on these anxieties can be very taxing for social care workers so having that chance to touch base with your workmates can make you feel less alone and supported. It gives you the chance to check if you are doing the right thing for a person, providing the right information, and it can give you a chance to take a break from the madness going on. A picture of your colleague’s dog can do a world of good.

The Power Behind “I Don’t Know”

If you have been following updates around the coronavirus on the news and the daily government briefings, then you will know that things are changing everyday, and everything remains to be up in the air. We are not getting clear dates, figures, or timelines from our governments. People are beyond desperate for answers. In fact, a common question I get from my supported people is: when will this all end? The Institute of Disaster Mental Health has said that this uncertainty leads to prolonged stress and anxiety as a disease outbreak differs from any other disaster as there “no clear time boundary.” As a result, our supported people may be in a continuous fight or flight response which can be exhausting. And, as support workers, we know that this can cause a rippling effect on their mental and physical health.

Support workers of any kind sometimes do more than they can and we can end up going above and beyond. It’s a natural instinct to want to solve problems and support workers can feel that instinct tenfold as it’s in our job description to provide a level of practical support. And, unfortunately, sometimes people naturally expect too much of us. We want to take away their problems and they want us to do that too. Therefore, the current situation is very stress-inducing, as you are unable to give concrete information. Consequently, you may want to give information that is not wholly correct and potentially vague. It’s not meant from a malicious place, but quite the opposite. Sometimes I have provided information that I wasn’t particularly sure was true because I wanted the person to feel safe and stop worrying. But, the unfortunate side of this, is while it alleviates anxieties, it can harmful. Think about it: you are giving out incorrect information, and effectively you are providing a false promise. If you’ve received a false promise before, you know how horrible it can feel when you realise you’ve been led down the garden path. Moreover, people can be receiving information from different sources whether it is other support workers, different news outlets, neighbours etc., so if your information differs from someone else then this creates further levels of confusion and uncertainty. Then the person may feel even more vulnerable because they don’t know who to trust.

This is when the power of “I don’t know” comes in handy. This simple statement can lead to a feeling of uncertainty from your supported people, but, ultimately, you are not about to give them false information just to make them feel better. Adding to this, you are not opening yourself up to losing that trust. So, I like to say: “I don’t know right now, but I will try to find out.” This has given some of my supported people a feeling of security as they know that I am not going to lie to them, and I will try my best to give them the truth when I can. This gives me the opportunity to go away, check and then answer the person when I have more information. I don’t know gives you the power of buying time so you can help when you are better informed.

A Chance to Chill

Often, in our regular day to day lives, we come home from our job, cook and then go to bed. This can turn your life into working, eating and sleeping. As they say: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Now, I know the coronavirus is bad, but there’s no reason for us to turn our lives into the Overlook hotel where we are trapped by our work and thoughts minus the creepy ghosts in the bathtub (spoiler alert.) If you are working from home, you might be tempted to do the same as above, or even work through the night to your bedtime. This is not healthy. This is not the time, nor is it ever the time, to become a workaholic.

Give yourself the opportunity to get a break away from your work life and have a moment to yourself. Take this as some time away from coronavirus centred news. After you have eaten, take an hour or so, even thirty minutes, to yourself. Do this before you go to bed. Take this time to do something you love whether this is watch a TV show, knit, read, listen to a podcast… Have a relaxing bath to ease your sore muscles and feet. Do some level of self care.

Maybe open the windows to let the air in, or sit by your garden steps if you have one. Feel some fresh air and listen to the sounds around you to give you a chance to feel grounded. To get that sense of normalcy and be reminded of the things we take for granted such as the birds singing. Take some time for yourself.

Your life should never be work, eat, sleep, especially not now.

Life Admin

Our lives might feel a bit manic and out of control right now as we try to work through the virus especially with PPE shortages, increased need for support, and staff sicknesses. As a result, we begin to let go of other things within our lives to compensate for the energy and effort we are putting into our jobs. We are busy trying to keep others’ lives together that sometimes we can forgo our own. This may feel like a good option at the time, but things will pile up and up and up and the further they pile up the less we want to deal with it. It becomes a big, scary thing to tackle, making us unsure where to start. So, if we try to set aside some time in the day or in the week to maintain our life skills, then we can tackle them in an easier and more approachable manner. Take 15 minutes at the end of the day to look through your mail, or make your lunch. Choose a day to organise a meal plan or give the house a good tidy. If you have someone else at home, team up. Can they take charge of the cooking while you take charge of the cleaning? Can they take the bins out while you make sure the dishes aren’t piling up? Defrost a steak while you action mail? Like in my previous blog on eating disorders and safe foods, collaboration during this time is key to making it through.

If You Feel Scared, Say It

Your supported people may be telling you everyday how very scared and worried they are right now. Because of this, you may feel the need to put on a brave face and push away your worries. While it is recommended you do this, as the support is for them, and not somewhere you bring your problems into, it is not healthy to let this bleed into the rest of your life. Listening to someone tell you how scared they are, seeing the terrifying figures of deaths, feeling that uncertainty… it can be draining and it can illicit fear within you. You can begin to internalise this fear and question whether anything is safe anymore. There has been times where I have been trying to keep on a brave face during a telephone call meanwhile I’m taking a panic attack as I’m talking, my heart hammering off my chest. We are human. We’re not superheroes. We get scared. This is a difficult time. And it’s okay to admit that.

If you are feeling scared, if you are feeling angry, if you are feeling lost, then say it. People on your team are probably feeling the same way. Your personal network of family and friends and colleagues can offer their own support to you and give you a space to discuss and reflect on your anxieties. Bottling up your negative feelings can burn you out eventually. You are going to feel exhausted from time to time. You are going to feel worried and uncertain. But this is okay. You are okay. You have a right to say how you feel and you have a right to feel supported yourself.

Keep Informed But Don’t Become Obsessed

As I mentioned, this pandemic is changing everyday. We are getting a constant steady stream of news and it can be very hard to keep up. At the start of the pandemic, I was watching the news every single day, every single hour, every single minute. Then, I suddenly began to feel dirty and disgusting and very, very overwhelmed. I knew I was watching too much. So, I began to only watch the news for a portion in the morning such as a 15 minute news show on YouTube called The Philip DeFranco Show (which is American centred) or BBC Breakfast and then watch the 6pm news bulletin. I’ll also watch the First Minister and government briefings. I keep myself informed so to keep my supported people informed, but I try not to become obsessed. We are all so desperately seeking out answers that it is incredibly easy to try to absorb as much news as we can. However, we can only absorb so much and eventually we will begin to drown in it. And, you might find that you become mixed up by the changing news and different information being put out there, especially with #fakenews.

The Institute of Disaster Mental Health has a fantastic statement in the report I linked, which has become my mantra during this time: unless you’re actually in charge of the response, you probably don’t need to be monitoring the news 24/7. We are providing support, but we are not the government. We can only do so much.

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Being in social care, particularly in my job as a recovery worker, is such a rewarding, challenging and fun job. We are used to expecting the unexpected. We work with people and people are unpredictable, which we learn to adapt to. However, this is new territory. Our current resources may not always be applicable, but their elements can be useful. This pandemic will end and we can weather this storm, but we have to take care of ourselves.

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Check out the NHS and the government website for further advice on coronavirus. If you work in Scotland, like myself, then check out the Scottish Social Services Council for further information on social care and coronavirus. Keep safe and keep healthy. We can do this.

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