Bully…

There was an interesting discussion on Radio 4’s ‘Thinking Allowed’ yesterday about workplace bullying.

I am now a few months out of my last workplace, and have spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of the working environment and the power given/taken to a certain kind of manager. It was a corrosive and damaging place to be and although I am a big boy and ought to be able to stand on my own two feet, at times it brought be to my knees. Social work is hard enough when you consider the nature of the tasks and the limitations of resources without adding in bullying as well.

When you are in the middle of it all, it is hard not to focus on particular individuals as the cause of all this. The dark shadow cast by certain people over everything is hard to escape- the thundering threatening e-mail, the meeting in which people are casually destroyed, the deliberate provocation and lack of co-operation. The relish that seemed to be exhibited at any kind of conflict.

There was a time when a new manager arrived who had a reputation to make. His career path was firmly upwards and woe betide anyone who got in the way. He had a new broom and wielded it like a scythe (to mix a deliberate metaphor.) Part of this meant categorising everything from the old regime as ‘bad’- and to be got rid of. Unfortunately, I was the only surviving middle manager from a previous ‘re organisation’ (which in the public sector is another word for a cull) so I was for it. There was no attempt to discuss with me some kind of plan of action, or lay out goals and action plans. No attempt was made to understand my strengths, or to make use of my considerable ‘organisational memories’.

What began was a campaign of alienation. I was called in for Performance Development Reviews and accused of all sorts of things that made no sense to me. I started collecting e-mails that seemed so unreasonable and even abusive that I thought I may need to use them as evidence later. It felt as if all the hard work I had put in to building an integrated mental health service had no value, and was being systematically sneered at, and then dismantled.

I stopped sleeping. I developed terrible cluster headaches. It became incredibly hard to maintain motivation, and all around me I saw people retreating into trenches and keeping their heads down. I contemplated just handing in my resignation and in a desperate moment, confided in a much older wiser manager who was doing some locum work with the council. He told me “Chris, don’t be so bloody stupid. What you need to do is to go and see (…..) and tell him that you have thought long and hard about the situation, and realise you have a lot to learn, and that you want to hear any advice he has to give about how to improve performance, and to provide the sort of management required. If you do this, you then have six months to get out intact, and protect your mortgage and your family.” 

I more or less did this, and things settled down. Years later, I was told almost casually by the manager who had put me under such pressure that I had made considerable improvements- and that he had initially thought that I was not able to do this, so had tried to get rid of me.

Perhaps I had improved- but I do not think so. I think my development, if there was any, was more about managing my interface with the higher management. I did this by expecting no support, by trying to focus on the important stuff and to protect my staff from some of the huge pressure coming down. I think I also became more valuable, as a lot of the hand picked new management team did not adapt well, and many left soon after joining the council, sometimes leaving chaos in their wake.

Back to ‘Thinking Allowed’ however. They were interested in the sociological aspect of bullying, not the psychological one; so rather than focussing on individual processes, the focus was more on the sorts of environments that breed this kind of behaviour. What sort of organisations might make it more or less likely? What organisations are high risk? Sociologists Ralph Fevre and Amanda Robinson claimed that organisations which are well versed in modern management practices may create a culture in which bullying, harassment and stress thrive.

Unsurprisingly Fevre and Robinson found that organisations that were overly focussed on abstract performance and production targets to the exclusion of the particular human needs of staff will certainly be high risk of bullying behaviours developing.

They looked at different kinds of bullying- ranging from psychological through to actual physical violence, and found that even people who have been subjected to violence tended to focus on one thing as the most damaging- the fact that their workplace placed no value in the work they were doing, or their contribution to the organisation. This certainly resonated with me- the social work department I worked for seemed to operate in an environment where the soft detail of caring social work had no currency whatsoever. Rather everything was reduced to narrow performance stats, which placed pressure on people to constantly cover their backs.

When I think about my time under this kind of stress, I find myself feeling a little ill- but I have to acknowledge that this is not just about particular individuals- it is a systemic thing. It grows in the margins of an organisation being squeezed to death by inspections, scandals, enquiries, financial crises, staffing shortages. There will always be people who are able to exploit these situations for their own personal gain, but the real problem is the nature of the environment.

What then might change round such an environment? Some of it I think has to be about a change in management style- a rediscovery of a value base, and the value of individuals. The place I worked had all the right language, but somehow totally missed the mark on this stuff. For the sake of those who work there, I hope that things have changed. There is evidence that new managers are trying to achieve this, so good luck to them.

As for me, I feel like I am still in recovery. I am expecting to need to go back into the social work/health care world, at least as a part time worker, in the new year. This still makes me feel a little queasy, but I hope that this will continue to abate. Some scars will remain…

A little self-review of the downshifting process…

As I climbed a ladder to paint a patch of re-rendered pebble dash on the outside of our old house, my thoughts were strangely on my former employment- all those years of social work. It has been just about two months since I took redundancy from my post as Mental Health Area Manager- which is something of a surprise- where did all the time go?

Time is a precious commodity- this is the longest period of my adult life without some kind of paid employment- even as a student I was so skint that I always had to find some work in between terms. I am acutely conscious of not wanting to squander these weeks of rest and recovery before the next chapter of my life can begin.

My hope was that the redundancy payment will give me some time to do the following;

  • Recover from what has been an exhausting, stressful and even damaging job.
  • Go on holiday somewhere.
  • Transform two large en suite rooms in our house to offer bed and breakfast accommodation.
  • Plan retreats, activity/craft breaks at the house, using our B and B as well as a holiday cottage.
  • WRITE.
  • Hope that the recharging of the batteries might result in me finding some part time work within the social work field that will allow me to continue to do the above things but have enough money to live.

How has it gone then?

Well, it took quite a few weeks (with hindsight) to ‘stop’ after all the madness preceding. I found myself, weeks after I left work, driving back towards Dunoon thinking about all the stuff I had yet to sort out in work. There came a point however, about four weeks after I left when I realised I no longer felt ill. I should add that I had not previously realised that I did feel ill. It was as if some pressure had been released out of my system and everything was working a little better. Long term exposure to high levels of stress is a terrible thing.

We managed a few days away, down in Northumberland- a place we had not been to before. I have also played a lot of cricket for both Innellan and Greenock clubs, and the chance to run around a field for a while playing a game I love has been like a holiday too.

The work on the house is now well under way as can be seen above. The biggest single task has been to fit an en suite shower room, and it is now finished;

 

My perfectionist friends will point out the rather irregular tiling in places but nothing in this old house is straight, so perfect finishes are simply not an option. I think it looks great though and is very usable.

The planning of retreats- well we are not there yet, but Michaela and Pauline’s craft workshop business is going great guns and already people are asking about the possibility of staying over in the B and B, which is just what we were hoping for.

Finally- writing.

If I were to pick one thing that I wanted to find time to spend doing, it is this. However, as yet, it has not happened really. I think this is partly about discipline, making a slot each day- but this kind of way of being creative has never really worked for me. Inspiration may be 70% perspiration but it still requires the nurturing of an idea. I have a project in fragments at the moment, waiting for the glue that brings them together.

Better boil up some horses hooves…

Unfolding paper clips…

They are important, these markings of transitions.

They are the spirituality of the mundane. And no less the lovely for that.

Today I met with some of my friends and colleagues from a 10 year career with Argyll and Bute council for my leaving do. People said some lovely things, and I think they meant them. Tears were shed, speeches spoken and extravagant gifts given/received.

A while ago, whilst we were reflecting on the chaos that the social work department is currently experiencing at the moment (losing over half of the experienced managers with no immediate replacements) I wondered aloud how on earth  the council could get away with it all. A wise friend of mine said something like this; It will be like a hand in a bucket of water, the hand thinks that the bucket will be lost without it, but as soon as you pull the hand, the water close like it has never been there.

I was sad when I heard it, because I knew it to be true. Large public departments are never dependent on individuals. They have a life of their own and there are always more people ready to be fed into the machine.

However, today might suggest that something lives on in the legacy you leave behind. The shape of you, even in the large bucket of water, in turn affects the shape of others- for good and ill, although I hope mostly for good.

Lest I start to get too elevated in my ego, one of the gifts given to me today was a ‘newspaper’, with the headline story something like this;

JAMMY CHRIS GOAN LEAVES TODAY – YES TODAY!

Chris Goan leaves Ellis Lodge Today… remaining workforce celebrate!

A Local Authority was in uproar today when one of its employees Chris Goan was finally ejected from the building. “He’s been a right skiver since the day he started here” said one employee who did not wish to be named (but known in the building as the Haggis Rustler) “I can’t wait to see the back of the bugger.”

One of Chris’s best friends (who will be paid later) said “I’m supposed to be on holiday today but I came in to see him leave for myself” He added “There was a rumour going around about him leaving, but it seemed to good to be true.” He added “When I saw we were doing a collection for him, I thought we were paying him to resign, so I put fifty quid in.”

Amongst Goan’s leaving presents was a half empty box of elastic bands, the account managers slippers and a card signed by two people (in the same handwriting.)

One of Goan’s work colleagues told our reporters “Nobody untwisted a paper clip quite like him, he won’t be easy to replace.” These statements were later echoed by Goan’s immediate boss who was found in a local pub drinking champagne straight from the bottle. “It will be hard filling Chris’s role, the idle sod took the heat off me. He’s certainly more popular than I thought he was though, someone chipped in £50 for his leaving present, so here I am.”

While the crowd outside Ellis Lodge enjoyed the subsequent celebratory barbecue and firework display, Goan’s boss continued to drink to his departure. When pushed for a more upbeat statement, he grudgingly added; “We wish Chris every happiness, no he has finally left us.”

A final statement issued collectively by the entire Cowal/Bute, Helensburgh/Lomond workforce and all MHO’s late last night read “Chris Goan, you are a… really nice guy! You are loved and will be missed, Damn you you lucky lucky thing!

(I think I have my lovely admin worker Issy to thank for this!)

As career epitaphs go, I will settle for that one.

Thanks friends…

Jubilee approaches…

I am in a strange place at the moment- all about transition. The ending of one thing and the step into an uncertain other. It is on the whole a good place, but not without it’s physical and psychological challenge. I have less than two weeks left in my current job (perhaps even my current career) and then I plunge into a time of relative free fall.

There is a plan of sorts- I will have some redundancy money that will keep us going for a little while and allow me to invest in alterations to the house. We hope to have two double rooms available for holiday letting/bed and breakfast by the end of the summer, which (along with our self catering accommodation) will allow us to make some kind of a living through hospitality. Our real hope is that we can start to offer a combination of activities around the old house- retreat weekends, pottery courses, outdoor activities etc. (We have a FB page and a website if you are interested to see where things are up to at present.)

I also hope that I get some time to spend writing. It is perhaps what I love to do most- a private secret thing that may well have no external application, but if I do not give some serious effort towards, will be a source of regret.

Then there is social work- I am not entirely sure I am done with it. I hope that in the process of stepping off the tread mill I might rediscover some of the passion and idealism that made me a social worker in the first place. I will probably need to do some part time work too.

On Sunday, during our Aoradh family worship day, Andy spoke about slavery. He described the context of slavery in the time of Jesus- people born into slavery, captured there in war, or selling themselves into slavery in order to cope with life or debt. Andy made the comparison with our relationship to money in our age- which (given what I have said above) clearly resonated with me.

We are all caught up in things that hold us, for good or ill. Some of this we fell into out of the womb, some caught us through circumstance, yet others we willingly tie ourselves to. Often it seems that these things become bigger than us- they offer us no choices, no release; we become slaves.

There is this other word however, which we have heard rather a lot of over this year in the UK- Jubilee.

I am not talking about elaborate celebrations of the anniversaries of monarchs, but as Wikipedia puts it;

The Jubilee (Hebrew yovel יובל) year is the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita (Sabbatical years), and according to Biblical regulations had a special impact on the ownership and management of land in the Land of Israel; there is some debate whether it was the 49th year (the last year of seven sabbatical cycles, referred to as the Sabbath’s Sabbath), or whether it was the following (50th) year.

“This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families. “
My Jubilee is not a release from bondage into some kind of utopian ideal- and I am sure it never was for the Hebrews. It just signifies for me the simple fact that making risky shifts in the fabric of our lives is a rare privilege.
.

Child protection- are you happy with what we do in your name?

This will be of little interest to most people. Children in care are not our business- someone else will deal with it. Bloody social workers probably.

I have written a lot about the terrible scandal over the death of Peter Connelly. Anyone who works within social work, even people like me who work with adults, is likely to have been profoundly affected by what happened to this 17 month old toddler, and the media/political witch hunt that followed.

A new study by CAFCASS has been published today suggesting that Local Authorities are now reacting more quickly and appropriately as they intervene into the lives of our most vulnerable children. Good news then?

Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive said, “After the panic that came with the Baby Peter media storm, the intensive reviewing by local authorities of cases has paid off for children: the intervention they need is coming earlier and cases are drifting less. Local authority staff are to be praised for this improved performance and local authority members should be praised for their political bravery in supporting these vital but not always locally popular services.

I think it is worth digging a little bit deeper into this issue.

Firstly- the numbers. The removal of children from their families under protection orders is at an all time high- it rocketed following the Baby Peter scandal, and remains around 62% higher than before 2007/8. This amounts to 9.2 care applications per 10,000 kids in our country- although in some parts it is much higher- 30.1/10,000 in South Tyneside for example. Over 10,000 children were removed from their homes under protection orders in 2011/2012 for the first time.

Perhaps this is the right number of orders- what should have been happening previously to prevent the deaths of children like Peter Connelly. The report appears to believe so;

In the vast majority of cases (85.4%), Guardians believed that the local authority’s care application was the only viable action to keep children safe and that there was no other alternative to court proceedings.

Leaving aside the dubiety over the 15% (around 1500) these figures really require deeper enquiry, and a much greater public debate about what they might mean.

Firstly, we need to stop pretending that this a simple issue- that if one profession (social work) do their job properly then the ragged edges of our society will be all neat and tidy and out of sight. It is significant the one of the notoriously difficult categories of concern being applied to orders is on the increase- that of neglect. I have been in and around the homes of enough kids from troubled family backgrounds to know that emotional or even physical neglect is a fluctuating and complicated picture, often very difficult to define and understand. 50% of parents in these situations have mental health problems, 60% will have problems with addictions.

We also need to stop making this about the ‘other’. Think about your own background. There is no doubt in my mind that my sister and I would have been the subject of great concern. Would I wish to have been removed from home, or would I wish that efforts could have been made, no matter how difficult this might have been, to improve things within my home?

This is the real crux of the issue. We seem to live in a culture that wants to divide a problem into victim and evil perpetrator. So our assets go into intervention, not prevention, support or long term partnership.

The machinery and administration of child protection sucks in the time of social workers like a massive bureaucratic sponge. Back to the study again;

Douglas said councils with effective early intervention programmes designed to help struggling families before their problems reached crisis point were more likely to take fewer children into care. Some guardians who responded to the survey said they felt a lack of early intervention, resources, respite care and family support contributed to the higher numbers of care applications.

Many councils, including my own, have fought hard to preserve child care budgets. However, in a time of austerity, when millions are being cut from local authority spending capacity, this does not convert to more resources to prevent family breakdown or to monitor and support families in need. What it amount to is that the same pot of social workers do almost solely crisis driven child protection work. Any family support is a side show, usually staffed by unqualified workers or run by voluntary agencies.

We have had our own recent high profile enquiry after all. It is perhaps significant that this enquiry did not hit the national consciousness like the Baby Peter one did. These girls were already in care. 

What happens to kids who come through the care system in the UK? By any measure, it is almost universally bad. Educational attainment? This from the BBC;

A third of looked after children reached age 16 in 2006 without any qualifications compared to only 2% of all children that age.

Not to mention the huge increase in likelihood of problems in later life- suicide, mental illness, poverty, homelessness etc.

The fact is, it is easy to provide ‘rescued’ kids with warmth, shelter, food and basic care. What is far more difficult is to create an environment in which they might thrive. In some case this is about the lack of specialist services- counselling, or highly skilled behaviour modification – but more often it is simply that services are under resourced, under valued and  out of sight.

The fact is, this is not inevitable. Despite the likely damage inflicted of kids removed from familiar home and environment because of sometimes traumatic experiences, these kids are not irreparably damaged. They should not be written off as economically lacking viability.

Amelia Gentleman, writing in the Guardian, gave voice to what those of us who have worked in the system already know;

“There is a desire in the UK to keep children out of care at all costs. Care is seen as something that you turn to when all else fails,” he said. “In Europe, they take more children into care, at a younger age, and do more with them.”

“There was increased regulation in the wake of several years of abuse scandals related to children’s homes,” she said. “People were very concerned that allegations could be made about staff’s conduct.

“Somehow that translated into … keeping a distance between young people and their carers, as a way of keeping them safe. We lost the focus on emotional warmth. It went so far as to stop staff giving children hugs when they actually need them.”

Let us not pretend that changing this will be cheap. In Germany, where outcomes for kids in care are MUCH better than ours, they spend roughly 4 times per child what we do on their care. From the Guardian article again;

“We need highly qualified people to look after these children to help them overcome whatever has happened to them in their life before care – neglect, abuse. There is a need to ringfence the sorts of resources you need to get it right,” said John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice, an advocacy organisation for looked-after children. “We have to invest more money in the system.”

 

So, this is being done to and with our children on behalf of you and me;

  • More children in care
  • Less focus on prevention and family support
  • A child care system that is not working

There are signs of change- but until the national debate changes, little else will I am afraid. Time to shake the tree.

Leaving…

I’ll not miss your snarling e mail

Or your apparent hysteria over things instantly forgotten

The ever worming mobile phone can canker itself

Into your flesh now-

For I am leaving

~

Neither will I miss those meetings around a table

Shadowed by glooming suits where

Words land like shot partridges

The elephant can trumpet in your ear now-

For I am leaving

~

I’ll not miss those twin pincers

Of guilt and responsibility

That claw me just before dawn

My pulsing vein has a fitted valve-

Now that I am leaving

Vocation…

Yesterday I received my redundancy letter. It was not a surprise- it has been two years plus in the writing. Neither was it entirely without choice, I have decided not to accept offers of alternative employment within the social work department.

Which brings me to this word-vocation, defined in the dictionary as

vo·ca·tion

[voh-key-shuhn]  Show IPA

noun

1.

a particular occupation, business, or profession; calling.
2.

a strong impulse or inclination to follow a particular activityor career.
3.

a divine call to God’s service or to the Christian life.
4.

a function or station in life to which one is called by God: thereligious vocation; the vocation of marriage.

But also defined here like this;

The idea of vocation is central to the Christian belief that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. In the broadest sense, as stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (CCC 2392). More specifically, in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, this idea of vocation is especially associated with a divine call to service to the Church and humanity through particular vocational life commitments such as marriage to a particular person, consecration as a religious, ordination to priestly ministry in the Church and even a holy life as a single person. In the broader sense, Christian vocation includes the use of one’s gifts in their profession, family life, church and civic commitments for the sake of the greater common good.

I entered social work as a vocation. It was almost a priestly thing for me. This might be difficult for others to understand-it is not as though social work has a status that might be seen to deserve respect. But there are lots of parallels- both are concerned with pastoral care, both are (or were) driven by higher ideas and ideology, both are embedded in institutions in the main.

To leave a vocation is no easy matter.

Reading through the second definition of the word (above) I wonder about this suggestion that God has created each person with gifts and talents oriented toward specific purposes and a way of life. This reminds me too much of old conversations about some kind of plan that God has written for each of us in some kind of massive ledger, and woe betide us if, like Christian in Pilgrims progress, we step off the golden path into some kind of career apostasy.

Such determinism has little place in my understanding of our pilgrim journeys, but we all make choices, even if the choice is to not change a thing. I do not know clearly what my vocation is at the moment. I have some clues of course- if I was to get to the very heart of things, it would be to create- to write words that inspire and shape the thinking of others. Whether this is a realistic vocation now has to be tested!

But this bit of the definition above I can stand on firmly;

Love is the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being”

And the application of this in the ways that we come to live, this is the long road that we Christian pilgrims have to travel.

Travel well…