Self-care, an overlooked core competency in paediatric social work

By Lucy Warner

Contrary to popular belief, not all social workers in New Zealand work for Oranga Tamariki, nor are they all “middle-aged, grey haired woman in bright coloured but comfortable clothes, wearing a Māori pendant and comfortable shoes” (Staniforth, Fouché & Beddoe, 2014).

I am currently on my placement within a paediatric health setting and have had the opportunity to see firsthand what the role of a social worker in hospital involves. The role of a paediatric social worker is incredibly varied, fast paced and has an important involvement in a family’s stay within the hospital. International literature suggests that a paediatric social worker is often the most important piece of the communication link between family and medical professionals and unlike social workers within other settings; paediatric social workers are considered an invaluable resource (Jones, 2006). Within this role, social workers assist families in understanding their child’s new diagnosis, assist in the transition in or out of hospital and advocate for the child and their family both within and outside of the hospital.

I believe the biggest contribution and strength of a paediatric social worker within a health setting is their ability to bring a more holistic and strengths based approach to a families experience within hospital. Social workers can bring their unique voices, centring their commitment on the patient and their needs and considering the wider psychosocial needs of the whanāu. Traditionally the medical model has a deficit focus and a social worker within the hospital has the ability to challenge this and shift the focus beyond a child’s diagnosis.

With their contribution and strengths, paediatric social work also has its challenges. Self-care has been referred to as the overlooked core competency of social work and I agree that this is true of my experience in paediatric social work. Self-care has a place of increasing importance within social work education; however, its importance does not necessarily transfer to practice.

Social work within a hospital setting comes with exposure to some emotionally challenging and very confronting situations and these may impact on a social worker’s ability to remain passionate and inspired within this role. As with social work within other fields of practice, social work within a health setting is hugely under resourced and understaffed, putting a large amount of pressure on the social workers to manage their workload.  Further, managing this emotional aspect of the work, in addition to existing operational demands is the greatest challenge that I have identified within my practicum experience.

Paediatric social workers are constantly prioritising their workloads based on the ever-changing needs of the patients on their caseloads; however, they need to be prioritising themselves too. They need to be aware of the signs of burnout and compassion fatigue and inputting self-care plans in order to manage the complexity of emotions that comes with working within the hospital. Self-care needs to have as much support in practice from supervisors as KPIs and performance reviews and should be recognised as best practice for social work in all settings.

References (and resources for recognising burn out and implementing self-care):

Bryning, A. (2015). Self-care for social workers: How mindfulness can help. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2015/may/11/self-care-social-workers-mindfulness

Jones, B. L., Christ, G., & Blacker, S. (2006). Companionship, control, and compassion: A social work perspective on the needs of children with cancer and their families at the end of life. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 9(3), 774-788. doi:10.1089/jpm.2006.9.774

Smullens, S. (2017). What I Wish I Had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in Our Social Work Profession. Retrieved from http://www.socialworker.com/feature-articles/field-placement/What_I_Wish_I_Had_Known_Burnout_and_Self-Care_in_Our_Social_Work_Profession/

Staniforth, B., Fouche , C. B., & Beddoe , L. (2014). Public perception of social work and social workers in New Zealand. Aotearoa New Zealand Social Work, 26(2/3), 48-60.
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About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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