Rock Bottom of “At Least”

Leaving Institutional Social Work after Burnout

My non-profit worker friends and I sit over coffee or wine, and as we listen to each other vent about our struggles, we hear our own thoughts and feelings articulated. At lunch the other day, my friend said, “It’s like they don’t even know what I do, let alone what I bring to the organization.” Like so many times before, I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh yes! Me too!” A few times now, I have admitted that all I could manage in the evenings is Netflix, only to discover it’s the same for my friends. The list of people I know who feel used up, burnt out, exploited and disrespected is ever-growing.

Between swigs of wine or mouthfuls of sweets, we try to buoy each other and ourselves with positive thinking. “You’re amaaaazing. You’ll find a place that appreciates you!” we gush. I’ve said and heard the following many times, “Oh if it weren’t for the clients, I couldn’t do this at all.” We try to “silver-line” it by saying, “Well at least I get to write some of my own content,” or “At least some of my colleagues are great,” or whatever it is.

I am at the rock bottom of “at least,” but at least I know it.

My therapist — a woman with a day job in institutional social work — advised, “They don’t care about us. Don’t expect your workplace to care about you.” Every time my managers or colleagues showed a lack of care for me, the friend or family member I cried to asked me why I was surprised. Is it cynical to expect the worse, or just realistic, and protective? Why did I expect better, when the statistical burnout rate for a social worker is 6–8 years?

Maybe it’s because I worked hard at becoming an adult, only to feel on a daily basis that I am not treated as an adult. Perhaps it is because where I wanted to find challenge and justice-doing and teamwork, I found PTSD, depression, anxiety, and stress. The jobs are stressful, but for many of us, they are also becoming increasingly bureaucratized — lots of rules and paperwork, and not enough of the work we signed up for. We stay; we pay the rent.

For so many of us in our 30s, the promise of becoming more confident has not been realized. Instead contract work and toxic workplaces have chipped away at our self esteem with the violence of an ice pick. We’ve tried to let go of the desire to be thanked and complimented, but the lack of recognition wears on us. We commiserate over the limited opportunities for mentorship, supervision, training and career growth. Then we laugh over the irony that we hang our whole identity and future on these places. What a bizarre situation to be caught in — to hope for the security and recognition of a full-time permanent job at a place that hurts us!

It’s like hoping your abuser will propose.

Like a woman sticking with her husband, a lot of us saw potential in our workplaces. We felt committed enough to the services users to try to change the workplace for our benefit and theirs. In Sarah Ahmed’s research on complaint with feminist workers, she observes that the workers often use the metaphor of “hitting our heads on a brick wall.”

We are concussed.

We know our potential is not realized, yet our impostor complexes are so bad that they cloud even our ability to imagine a different path. When you are treated as disposable it’s hard to keep a tight grasp on your self worth. I felt resigned to feeling shitty until I found a new gig. It took a really long time to realize maybe it’s not gonna happen quick enough, and the only way to make my workplace fulfill my needs and desires is to literally make my own job.

Many of us are pausing a bit to plan our next moves, trying to imagine futures over which we can have some control. Others cope by adding a side hustle. A well-paid government social worker I know told me she does psychotherapy part-time in order to feel some room for creativity — a second job to do what she wants to do.

Another friend is only 30 and is starting her own business that builds on her experience providing mental health programming for universities, but allows her autonomy. When she was last on payroll, she worked alone in a university department as a counsellor. The university was notorious for bad management, frequent mistakes with pay, toxic culture, and unreasonable workloads. She quit before her contract was up. 30 and had the good sense to be all, “Nope, not doing this.”

Some of my other friends dream of their own non-profits, or their own private practices. At times they consider doing something totally different, like running a coffeehouse. I met an ex-social worker at a party who studied (and drank) wine as a hobby after her day job, and ended up jumping ship to a very lucrative job in wine sales.

I don’t like wine that much, so wish me luck on the small counselling business route.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly. audreybatterham.com.

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