Darlington Ihenacho is the Principal Social Worker at West Sussex Council and Vice-Chair of the Principal Child and Family Social Worker Network (PCFSW) Network. After initially training as an economist, Darlington gained a social work degree in Manchester.
Here, he shares what led him to a career in social work as well as his advice for giving the mental health and wellbeing of social workers the attention it deserves.
While studying my master’s in Development Economics, I became disillusioned about the direct impact I could make. My introduction to social work came when I started a role as a support worker in a forensic mental health hospital. I met a social worker during a multidisciplinary meeting and was immediately impressed by how she presented herself. The doctors, clinical psychologists and other professionals in the room paid real attention to her and what she had to say. After the meeting I approached her; she encouraged me to research social work and read a book by Pamela Trevithic. The book was entitled ‘Social Work Skills and Knowledge: A Practice Handbook’. I read it cover to cover within a week and thought, “this is me”.
My social work degree was intense and required a commitment of 5 days a week to either classroom-based or placement learning. This meant I had to work weekends to pay my rent so it was very full-on, but I really valued it. I knew early on that my focus would be child and family social work. Placements in Bury and Rochdale left me feeling energised unlike when I had been considering my career options in economics, especially in the very white male dominated spaces of the stock exchange and finance.
18 years on, my career so far has been incredibly rewarding, though I don’t think people know quite how difficult the role of a social worker is! It’s not easy and we’re often portrayed badly in the media. I believe we all should do what we can to raise the profile of the profession but in the meantime, the one skill that is incredibly important for social workers to maintain is resilience.
Here are my tips for making sure that mental health is a priority for you and your teams:
1. Make mindfulness accessible during the working day
During the pandemic, there has been a huge shift in the spaces social workers have to operate. I know many social workers who have had to deal with very traumatic and disturbing cases, whilst working from home in their bedrooms/office. When they finish work, the conversation and emotions related to those cases are still with them in their personal space.
Sometimes the lines between work and home are blurred because social workers are part of the community. It is more important than ever for managers and supervisors to support social workers with learning to switch off and building boundaries in their work-life balance. Social workers give 110% but they equally need effective breaks, so that they can stay focussed the rest of the day.
In West Sussex, I use mindfulness and grounding techniques. We offer weekly online yoga and seated yoga sessions. Social workers have found yoga very helpful, especially as a lot of people have complained of more neck pain working from home. It’s up to a local authority (LA) to provide support to social workers by making these things accessible during working hours, as a clear and integral part of the day.
2. Have senior leaders show their encouragement and understanding
The focus on mental health and wellbeing hasn’t all been plain sailing in West Sussex! You need the buy-in from leadership and staff. A lot of the success in our work is down to the approach of our Director of Children’s Services (DCS) and great leadership. It’s very important for managers above you to be encouraging and understanding. We have also introduced Mental Health First Aiders because we recognise that big problems can become small once you’ve spoken to someone.
We’re also committed to improving flexible working in West Sussex. It’s no surprise that annual leave has accumulated during the pandemic, so it’s important for managers to encourage staff to take this time to re-charge.
3. Give yourself permission to focus on your wellbeing
I have developed a knack for switching off, by that I mean I give myself permission. It’s important that I feel I have done the best I can during the day and that helps me to switch off in the evening. I have a fantastic manager and leadership team. Their support reinforces my confidence that I have done what I can for a child or family. I also have a young family which encourages me to switch off to spend quality time with them.
When at my desk I use the 20, 20, 20 technique. This means taking a break of at least 20 seconds, every 20 minutes, to look at least 20 feet away. Otherwise I try to keep active, I go running, cycling or hiking which helps me a lot. The importance of your wellbeing can’t be understated - I think the emotional health of a workforce should be reported on by Ofsted!
4. Don’t underestimate the power of a supportive team
I learnt early on in my career that social workers feel accountable to their managers rather than those in more senior leadership roles. Your manager will advocate for you more than anyone else will. In social care, you depend a lot on goodwill and you cannot quantify that - social workers work beyond their pay and go the extra mile. A toxic environment will drain you, so being a team player is vital. Having colleagues you can de-brief to, as well as a mentor and a coach, really helps.
My ethos is that if you look after your team well, they are in turn able to look after the children and families better. I’ve always aimed to lead a consistent, vibrant team and have trained myself to support them in any way I can. Being accessible and available to listen is key and it makes you happy to see your team progress, individually and professionally.
A dedicated tool and workbook have been developed to improve organisational resilience in child and family social work.