Just keep paddling

I have just spent 24 hours as part of a support team for a 125 mile canoe endurance event. Our canoeists paddled from Devizes to Westminster, through the day and night, in the rain and cold, climbing out of the canal for 77 locks, and racing to catch the tide that would take them the last 18 miles. I learned a lot about how to help keep people going under extremely difficult conditions, and I think that much of this is relevant to those who are supporting social care practitioners. So here are some thoughts for managers, workforce development - and anyone else who provides social care back-up - about how to keep practitioners going as they paddle along.

1. Have a schedule for support and stick to it

Over the 24 hours, the two support teams met the canoe every 30-45 minutes. Our canoeists knew when we would be arriving and we were always there to meet them. They didn’t have to keep going longer than expected without support.

Supervision is the main way that supporters can check in on practitioners, and there does seem to be a link between regularity of supervision and job satisfaction (SCIE 2012). However, practitioners and supervisors that I meet acknowledge that supervision is often missed or rescheduled. Of course, things will come up but they need to be weighted against the impact on the practitioner of not getting that planned support. Supervision should be one of the last things to be moved in a calendar. Supporters need to be regularly visible and accessible.

2. Ask people and tell people what they need

Every time we met the canoeists we asked them what they wanted to eat. Sometimes they knew and sometimes they were too tired to think. We knew what they had eaten so far and what they were likely to need next and so half the time we dictated what they should have. We also checked their hands to see if they needed taping, in case they hadn’t realised they had blisters.

Social care practitioners need to be self-aware in order to practice effectively. Critical reflection helps people to realise what is impacting on their practice and what they need. However, we all have blind spots and so we not only need the space to think, we also need some direction or support for our reflection. Supervisors, trainers, peers and mentors can help practitioners to think through what they need and to identify the things they haven’t considered (Nosowska and Series, 2013). This requires you to build a relationship so that you know what the person has tried before, what works for them and what they might be missing.  

3. Keep reminding people of what they are doing it for and how far they have come

We had a spreadsheet that said exactly how far each meeting point was along the course and how well our canoeists were doing against the expected pace. At times, the race was harder than expected and at times they were going more quickly than planned. Each time we met them, we said how well they were doing, and told them their time and their mileage. We encouraged them by saying how far they had come and how proud they would be when they finished.

The Social Work Task Force report identified the importance of resilience for practitioners (SWTF 2009). Resilience is enhanced when optimism is high and when people believe in their self-efficacy. Key factors in building resilience are support and relationships. Telling people that what they are doing is important, recognising their achievements and encouraging them to focus on outcomes all help to build resilience.

4. Support the supporters

We were awake and working for the whole time that the canoeists were. Our task was not as difficult as theirs but we did need to be ready and alert. We were wandering around bridleways and tow paths in the dark and the cold so we needed the right kit. We had to rest and eat when we could. Above all, the two support teams had to look out for each other, keep in touch and make sure that if one wasn’t able to provide what was needed then the other one would.

One of the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force was dedicated programmes of training and support for front line social work managers (SWTF 2009). This recognised the crucial role of supporters in enabling practitioners to do their jobs. Managers and other supporters that I meet are increasingly over-busy, tired and struggling to do all that is asked of them. However, you can’t support someone if you are burnt out yourself. Managers and mentors can model the right kind of behaviour for their staff by seeking help when they need it and by making sure their own physical needs are met.

 

Above all, I was reminded of the importance for practitioners of having good support. Thank you to the supporters for all you are doing.

 

SCIE Research briefing 43: Effective supervision in social work and social care

Nosowska and Series (2013) Good Decision Making: Practitioners’ Handbook, RiPfA

Building a safe, confident future - The final report of the Social Work Task Force