You probably haven’t guessed this, because despite my online store filled with playful homewares that have been designed by yours truly…I am actually a qualified social worker – I know, these two jobs are worlds apart!
At university I studied Criminology and when I graduated 3 years later I was happy to be moving in with my partner of two years and looking forward to the future. Admittedly I didn’t quite know what the future would hold – nor did I expect to be starting a Social Work Master’s degree in just two months time, but I did and I was really excited at the prospect. I knew I could do some good work helping vulnerable people as I’d always been passionate about improving the quality of life of others. This job felt like my calling if you like. For the first few months the course was great, admittedly the assignments were difficult (as I’d expected them to be at postgraduate level) but I was getting fab grades – higher than I’d dare hope for (70+ marks, otherwise known as a first/distinction). Whilst my grades were really good, my well-being was not. My stress levels were continuously bubbling underneath the surface and I felt the most under pressure that I ever had. Little did I know then this was when my OCD began to accelerate.
Fast forward to June 2014, I was given an assignment that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing with. Our cohort had around 110 students and speaking in front of that many people is quite a big deal for me as an introvert kind of character. BUT I plucked up the courage and stuck my hand up to ask for some support from our lecturer. I asked “can you give us an example of what the question is looking for?”…her response: “oh…I don’t know” – I knew then that I was doomed, no – WE were doomed. A lot of people were asking for advice and were constantly given “I’m not sure…I don’t know”. The constant worrying about failing this essay really took its toll on my mental health and I was having frequent meltdowns over it.
At this particular university, the assignments are divided between around 5-6 lecturers and it seemed that each of them had their own ideas what the essay was looking for. At my previous university, the one lecturer would be responsible for marking all of the papers for that module – seems sensible doesn’t it? This method ensured consistency and confidence in the essay advice provided. Having multiple lecturers mark a single module seems like it’s just asking for trouble as they all seemed to have their own benchmark expectations for the essay which left us jumping through hoops to figure out the right answer to the question and hope we were right. In the end all any of us could do was hope we’d done a good enough job to merit a pass. Sure enough the results came though and confirmed what I already knew, I’d scraped 55% – yep that is a pass, but it was also a 22% decrease from my previous grade. I’d worked so hard and I was gutted. I wasn’t the only one – this huge drop in marks was reported to have affected pretty much the entire cohort and people were raging. There was a lot of anger at the university for the lack of guidance given and honestly it seemed like the social work department couldn’t care less – even though A LOT of student’s marks had reduced hugely.
The next challenge of the course was a 70 day placement in an organisation that allows the student to develop their skills and knowledge to become a competent practitioner. Students started going out to their placements from January with the goal of finishing in time for our final year commencing in September. By July, I still didn’t have my placement and was feeling the pressure because I knew that meant it was going to overlap with my second year – the year where assignments are expected to get even tougher. Finally, I was assigned a placement at the very end of August 2014 (when most other students were finishing!) and I was due to begin my second and final year in just a matter of weeks. Despite my apprehension, I was excited to have things moving along.
I started my placement in a prison and to be honest I was miserable from the get-go. The travelling was pretty awful, I’d walk for 20 minutes, get a 30 minute train journey, walk for 20 minutes, get a bus for 20 minutes then walk for another 20 minutes. All in all it was taking me about 2 hours by the time I’d waited around for transport. That’s four hours travelling every single day and having to go home and work on assignments when honestly I was shattered. I hated the journey and walking in/out of the prison in the dark nights was awful…that full 20 minutes walking to the bus stop past masses of wasteland with no one around and lots of trees was so creepy. I hated every second of it. I was approached by a male when I got off the bus one day who asked if I’d like to be friends and meet up, I politely declined his offer and said that I didn’t have time for socialising at the moment (I didn’t even if I wanted to!). He queried this but finally accepted that I wasn’t interested and finished the conversation by stating that he knew where I worked (the placement)…ERR WHAT?!?!
Around this time, my OCD ROCKETED because of the stress I was under and I felt SO LOW. I thought going into the social work profession that I’d meet lots of people who were kind, people who genuinely care about the hardships of others but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure I’ve met a fair few people like this, but I’ve met far more horrors who’ve made me think “why the hell are you in this profession?” The team at my placement were very small – only 8 members of staff and 4 of those people were so bitchy. They would make passive remarks at the way I did things (even though that was how I’d been instructed by my supervisor) and they’d sneer and look at me distastefully – unsuprisingly I was really unhappy there. I was asked to complete training in London, my OCD was making me feel miserable and I was on edge from stress so I requested that I complete the training remotely as another member of staff was also doing. She was being given a ton of leaflets instead of travelling to London so I didn’t think it would be a big deal if I asked if I could do the same. The idea of going somewhere so crowded whilst I was feeling so low and anxious made me feel even worse. Even though I confided how I felt to my supervisor, she could not have been less supportive if she tried. I felt like I was being bullied into attending the training, she belittled me and questioned my capacity to be a competent social worker. I felt like a total inconvenience and I began to doubt my own capabilities. I was having nightmares and not sleeping great and I could feel the anxiety constantly bubbling in my stomach.
My OCD at this point had not been diagnosed and I had no idea why I was feeling as emotional as I was. I reached out to two other students also on placement. I had hoped that this would improve the level of isolation that I felt and I hoped they would understand – and would want to (given the career that they were pursing). This was apparently the worst thing that I could have done because both of them laughed in my face, yep you read that right! They LAUGHED in my face. I remember thinking why the hell are you training to be a social worker? A career that is orientated around supporting, advocating for and empowering vulnerable individuals. My supervisor reported to my P.E (worker hired by the university to support and assess students on placement) that as I had declined the training in London, she felt that I was not taking the course seriously – bearing in mind I was only obligated to travel within 50 miles of placement and the other staff member was completing her remotely, I thought this was a bit unfair and a low blow. I had a meeting with my P.E who advised that I should take some time off to recuperate and to take as long as I needed. After being signed off sick by my GP for 4 weeks, I was ready to return to placement but before I could do this, I was asked to go into the university to meet with the programme leader. It was November 2014 and I was told that my placement had been terminated and I had no choice but to wait another until September 2015 to restart the second and final year – IF the university decided to give me another chance. I was devastated and livid for the way I’d been treated by so many so-called professionals…professionals that were working in a supposed-to-be caring profession.
A justified complaint
I wrote a letter of complaint to the programme director (the big big boss) because I felt so aggrieved by how badly I’d been treated. Despite my lack of funds, he demanded that I go into university to discuss my complaint. I took my partner along for support – to witness the conversation because I knew that my words would be twisted to suit their agenda. Sure enough, I set one foot into the social work department when I was confronted by an angry-looking man who said to me “are you Stacey? We were expecting you half an hour ago”…that can’t be right I thought, I was sure I’d double checked the meeting time. I re-checked the email on my phone and I was right! I was bang on time – no, I was a few minutes early. I politely notified him of this and he shrugged and grunted at me, no apology – no nothing. He sat down from me and said “so what’s all of this about?”…I was gobsmacked and baffled…did-he-just-admit-to-not-reading-my-letter? WHAT?! I found out later that he retired shortly after…obviously he was not fussed about any backlash because he was leaving. That meeting was a complete waste of time, he did not listen to any of my concerns and I left in tears.
After another tense meeting with the university, I was granted permission to complete another placement and to rejoin the course the following September. Before I could restart my placement, I had to have more meetings with the university and I was instructed to write a statement about why I’d ‘failed the first placement’, what I’d done wrong and how I could improve to ensure this would not happen again. So despite being treated as a second class citizen on placement by the other workers, being sneered at, being made to travel four hours a day AND being made to wait until September to be given a placement, apparently to be given ‘another chance’ I had to write a statement about what I’d done wrong. In social work we are taught to accept professional accountability, to be accountable for our decision-making and actions…yet I saw none of this from the department that preached it to us students in lectures. Instead, they shifted full blame to a vulnerable student who was treated with no respect, no dignity and they made ure to make my life as difficult as possible…because you know, that’s not oppressive at all is it?! Hmm.
It left a bitter taste in my mouth, but I played the game and I wrote in my statement what I knew they wanted to hear. I was given permission to do another placement. On one hand this was good news, I was getting a second chance…but on the other hand, I suddenly had to fund a whole year that I hadn’t planned for and this put myself and my partner under great stress and financial pressure. I was promised by my university that they would write a letter that I could give to my bank to postpone the repayments for my Career Development Loan whilst I returned to study for another year – I was assured that this would be accepted without any problem. What do you think happened next? The bank rejected the letter and said that it wasn’t their problem (technically it wasn’t – i’d signed a contract with them and they were well within their rights to want their money back). Still, i’d been assured by the university that things would be ok – it wasn’t, the bank wanted over £200 each month whilst I was still a full-time student. I’d read that the NHS will provide extra funding if your course date goes over the official course end date…I put in a claim…it was rejected on the basis that it was my first and not final year. So I consulted my student union for support – no joy there was nothing they could do at all. To add further insult to injury, I received a letter from the university stating that as I was restarting the year in September 2015, the course fees were increasing by £100 and I must pay this otherwise I would be kicked off the course…I was literally penniless and once again the student union could not help. Thankfully my Dad stepped in to help but I HATED having to ask him for money.
Fast forward to April 2015, I was diagnosed with OCD and this was when things started to look up…I was placed on medication, started CBT and restarted and finished a new placement (which I passed with flying colours by the way. My second and final year at university was a breeze, I had no problem completing my assignments and my grades were back up to +70%…then I started my second and final placement…and what a nightmare that was. I was beginning to question whether I’d broken a mirror and not realised…
From one nightmare to another
I was placed in a small organisation with around 8 main staff members…you’d think that with it being such a small office it would be more likely a family unit…well it was if you were ‘one of the family’. By that I mean if you were a permanent staff member. You know how I know this? Because 4 of the staff members had been students at one point too and one of them had confided in me privately that they too felt like they were treated like sh*t when they were a student but now they’re fully employed, they’re treated like ‘one of the gang’. It was an awful BITCHY environment and I knew this because they’d bitch about each other when the other wasn’t around. I couldn’t stand being in such a nasty environment…on one occasion I witnessed a staff member SHOUT down the phone to the receptionist “FOR F’CKS SAKE, IT’S 25 PAST 4″…YOU WHAT?! Who treats their colleagues like that? At what point do think it’s ok to speak to someone like this in the workplace? (or anytime for that matter!) I queried this with the receptionist during a quiet moment and was told that it was accepted because ‘that’s just how that particular staff member was’… so that makes it ok to speak to their colleagues like cr*p? HUH? PFFT.
That particular member of staff also had the audacity to say to me at one point “WELL NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR OPINION”…nice, what a lovely individual you are, I’m so glad I had the pleasure of meeting you. Granted she was good at her job…she connected with the service users well but she wasn’t a particularly pleasant individual to be around. You know Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter? That annoying little hiccup she does to remind every one of her presence? Well there was someone there like that too…always sneering and making tsk noises at her desk. One of the nicer staff members was actually leaving after many years working there and she said someone along the lines of “now i’m leaving you’ll have to add me on Facebook to keep in touch” and they were all “aw yeah we will do, bye hun”…they even attended her little farewell lunch buffet the lovely chef had arranged. As soon as the office door shut behind her for the last time, I heard “AS IF I’M ADDING HER ON FACEBOOK”. On other occasions i’d cheerily say morning as staff members came in, on more than one occasion I got a glare, our eyes met and received no response from that person…AWKWARD! Gosh it was awful. I connected well with another student on placement who also noticed the negativity in the office. We all had supervisors assigned and on one occasion she went to have a meeting with hers… she went to walk down the stairs and he went to get the lift, so she said “oh I’ll get the lift too then” and he said if that were the case then he would take the stairs…he later said that he didn’t want people getting the wrong idea that something could be going on between them…WHAT?! Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? I haven’t.
A change of heart
Finally after 3 years of graft, I graduated my MA Social Work with DISTINCTION! That’s the highest grade you can achieve…something I’d hoped for but I didn’t believe I’d actually get. After all of that grief and self-doubt, i’d passed with flying colours! But I also knew at this point that my future did not lie within the social work sector, I was weeks off launching my own online business that i’d worked so hard on and knew in my heart that FINALLY I was on the right path to happiness. Sounds cheesy I know but after everything, cheesy is good with me.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ALL bad and I’ve met some lovely people too. But I realised around this point that if I have any hope of being happy in my career, then I need to work for myself – in a quiet office where I can choose who I work with and what I’m working on. I’ve really enjoyed my experiences with service users and helping vulnerable people, these encounters have made me more aware of who I am – I’ve learnt I’m a very empathetic character and my approach to supporting people is very holistic and I discovered new levels of patience within me that I didn’t know I had. I’ve also met some genuinely lovely and dedicated workers of whom have been a complete pleasure to work with – and I’ve taken their advice and wisdom fully on board to enhance my development as a newly qualified social worker.
Despite this, I’ve reached a point now whereby I don’t think social work is for me anymore – that passion to help vulnerable people who initially motivated me to study it at masters level is still very much there, BUT i’ve had my fair share of not-so-nice professionals in that particular role that have made me realise that in order to prioritise and maximise my own happiness, I need to be in an environment that allows my mental health and well-being to thrive and I firmly believe that is in my own office at home.
Please help to support my business* Hippo & Co. and share with your family and friends. It really would mean so much to me and my partner 🙂 …*Don’t forget to tell them about code STACEYM to get 15% off too!
If you’ve made it this far then you are a legend! Thanks so much for reading!