Rachel Baker has been a qualified social worker for 18 years. A chance encounter with a University of Warwick prospectus inspired her to stop training as a solicitor and take her career in a new professional direction. Here, Rachel talks about her work as a life coach and the importance of social workers taking control of their lives, so that they can transition ‘from surviving to thriving’.
Early in my social work career, I worked in frontline child protection before specialising in working therapeutically with birth parents in adoption cases at Warwickshire County Council. In my current role as Academy Learning Lead, my team is responsible for the learning and training of social workers. It has only been a few months since we launched Warwickshire’s Children and Families Academy, so it’s all very new currently.
Changing my lifestyle to improve my physical and mental health
My time in child protection, along with personal experiences, increased my interest in wellness and wellbeing. Over a 10-year period, I saw my health decline. I put on a lot of weight and caught pneumonia twice. Just before my fortieth birthday, my doctor advised me that I needed to change my lifestyle to improve my physical and mental health. This was also over a period where I lost five grandparents and experienced a lot of grief. It was grief on grief, really; a lot of stress accumulated, and I thought, ‘I’d better do something now’.
While taking steps to improve my mental wellbeing, I became interested in life coaching. I also started running regularly; a new habit that helped me to lose nine stone. Around this time, my partner and I adopted two children who had been through the care system. I knew I would need to change my working hours to part-time and move away from child protection to be able to meet their needs. My ethos has always been to put my family first.
An unexpected springboard into life coaching
Alongside working for the council, I was successful in applying for a part-time position at Adoption UK. The role involved providing therapeutic support on the telephone for adoptive families who were often close to breakdown, as they were not getting appropriate intervention. Unfortunately, funding for the program ended and I was made redundant.
I like to call this the divine intervention that acted as my springboard into life coaching. My redundancy provided the money I needed to train as a life coach. I seized the opportunity and six months before the first lockdown, I realised my dream. As well as life coaching, I also started 'Run Fit 5K', where I teach people in the community to run.
The personal experiences of social workers
In early 2020, I was invited by John Coleman, the Director of Children’s Services, to provide a life coaching service to social work colleagues in Warwickshire. John has always been very keen to invest in the wellbeing of staff and is always seeking new ways to drive improvement. The workshops started in February 2020, just before lockdown began, and have continued throughout 2020 and 2021. To begin with they were online and now they are being delivered in person. Under John’s leadership, I am currently supporting the seventh cohort of social workers to change and improve their lives, through a mixture of workshops, one to one coaching and running.
How wellbeing coaching works in practice
- Workshops are designed to examine where a person is in their career and in their life more generally; we’ll consider the factors that have led them to that point, before introducing tools and strategies to plan for the future
- One to one coaching takes a deeper look into professional and personal circumstances, outside of the group setting
- Running is not only physically beneficial but contributes towards improved confidence and resilience
I don't know any social worker that has come into the profession without having been motivated by personal experience. Yet, as a profession, we are not used to being asked about our personal lives and how we got to where we are today. I’m interested in unpicking these circumstances, using attachment and trauma-based theory. It is very much about presenting an idea or process, then letting social workers unpick that, based on their own experiences and in their own time.
An opportunity for social work education
In our profession, we are naturally trauma experienced, but not necessarily trauma informed. There are a lot of social workers who don’t understand how trauma impacts on their work and their life outside of work. I can see a huge gap in social work education and research here. If we can correct this and find a solution, we will have a healthier workforce who are able to achieve better outcomes for children and families.
I remind social workers of tools and techniques that can help them, for example:
Our belief systems will always intrinsically impact our potential
If we don’t believe we can do something, we limit our potential to do it, which therefore limits our actions and the outcome. If we believe we can do something, our potential exponentially increases, which will then increase the potential for a good outcome.
The change cycle helps us understand why change can be so difficult to maintain
We begin with a period of not understanding that we need to change, then having an idea that we need to change, before we can be committed to it. Commitment allows us to take action and maintain it.
In practice, coaching has worked extremely well for Warwickshire. With wellbeing support, social workers have returned to work after being on long-term sick leave, come off medication, found order in their lives, felt less stressed and achieved a better work-life balance. Social workers will often say that the service provides them with a sense of their brain fog lifting, better clarity and specific goals for the future.
To find out more about working in children’s social care at Warwickshire County Council, visit their website.
For more advice on giving the mental health and wellbeing of social workers the attention it deserves, read Darlington Ihenacho’s blog.