Distress at work

I had wondered about how the work of Menzies would apply to the probation service whilst I was in my first job in Sheffield. I came to reflect on a number of aspects of this informed later not just by the way Menzies understood the emotional impact of an agency’s function but also by the way in which the reflection process articulated by Janet Mattinson could also be applied to organisational life. Working across a range of organisations in the new city provided me with plenty of material to extend how I understood what drove people’s behaviour in professional roles.

It is a striking feature of all kinds of agencies working with people in trouble that the fact that the work is distressing and anxiety provoking is not only hard to acknowledge but also to acknowledge this fact feels like a sign of weakness. Staff find it hard to be ‘tender’, and such emotions can attract real hostility within helping services. We are well used to seeing this phenomenon in for example the armed forces or the police but it is no less a feature of many probation and social work settings. What this means is that the distress and anxiety of the work has to find expression in other ways than straightforward acknowledgement. This is what Menzies understood.

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Emotional dynamics of work

The sense that professionals behave as they do because of the influence of the organisation in which they worked was not a new discovery. The seminal text was Isabel Menzies’ analysis of the behaviour of nurses in a hospital and how much of this was driven by the unconscious emotional underpinning of hospital life – the anxiety about death. Interestingly enough, we faced one symptom of this organisational life in the Bereavement Society in Milton Keynes when we tried to publicise the service to families of people who would die in hospital or after a stay in hospital. The idea that we would put up posters which alluded to the fact that people die was thought to be disturbing to the well being of patients and their families (as if this thought would not have occurred to them without our posters). This is however treating the defensive anxiety of the hospital as if it were just a problem to be overcome – the point about defences is that they are both dysfunctional and functional. They allow people to achieve things, care, be effective as well as get in the way of positive outcomes.

In the hospital, the way in which nurses’ tasks were allocated, as Menzies describes them, had a real purpose – all kinds of practical tasks had to be done and they would not be efficiently completed if staff were persistently distressed about sick patients for whom they were caring. Dividing jobs up into specialisms had the benefit of preventing nurses from getting too emotionally close to any particular patient. Whilst the hospice movement crystallised the possibility of handling things differently, the distress of staff about patients dying still has to be managed.

Moving On

So, I moved on from my first job as a probation officer to a social worker role in a new city.

It is interesting as I look back to see how much of this stepping out into a wider world involved a continuation of my development from sheltered immaturity combined with the impact of the organisational culture within which I worked. In the probation service, in a city where I had been a child, I felt increasingly constrained by the same kind of protected worlds – Methodism and the Probation Service both seemed to provide a home out of which I needed to grow. Both had a sort of sheepish approach to the world, critical of established powers but huddling for safety to what was known. I had grown up in them both but could not feel a full adult within either at that stage – Oxford had given me a taste of something more ambitious and glamorous, sure of itself in the corridors of power and it connected with the ambition inside me. That personal drive needed the support of a new organisational culture, and in some ways therefore I found myself in all kinds of situations in Milton Keynes that I may have feared to take on just out of personal commitment.

Partnership working

I was therefore keen to start on this issue where I was. I was a professional. I was paid to work on behalf of the powers that be to change the behaviours of offenders. I was middle class with an academic turn of personality. I was of an introverted nature and not at ease in unstructured social situations. Forgetting more radical ideas, it remained true that a range of public and voluntary agencies were working with the offenders or their families or would wish to work with them. It was obvious therefore that those agencies would be more effective if they worked together, shared understandings and drew on each others’ strengths. To that extent, what we were doing in the Sheffield office was needed – we just were far too tentative and inward looking. We were too concerned to find ways in which other agencies could help us, and insufficiently interested in how we could help them.

I felt unapologetic therefore about investing time in what was seen as rather traditional and unambitious activity in Sheffield, and later would be regarded as peripheral to our task by some probation staff and managers. It has always seemed to me that unless we were clear about the professional skill and knowledge being made available to people in trouble, and about how to make that available in the most effective way, we had no business intervening in people’s lives. The first job was therefore to get the ‘professional’ house in order before we sought more ambitious pathways. This also meant learning about organisations. How to work in partnership with other organisations therefore became a theme that dominated the rest of my working life, and will form a significant part of the latter sections of this account of my professional learning.

Professional development

This last discussion chimed in with a recognition that clinical interventions to change people’s lives would not be enough – the conviction I met in Bill Jordan that drove him to political engagement and to client led activities. This, for all my interest in the world of emotions and psycho-dynamics, I had seen as important from my setting out into social work.

After five years as a probation officer, I was therefore looking to spread my wings into something broader. The impulse to go deeper into clinical practice took me to apply for a post at the Institute of Marital Studies. I thought about working in psychiatric settings but I actually applied and was successful in getting a post in the new city of Milton Keynes with the Family Welfare Association (FWA). This turned out to be an ideal marriage of clinical and ‘social’ approaches to social work – it is hard to be sure why I was interested in applying for this job almost 40 years ago but it was as much an interest in a chance to be part of creating a new social environment as in joining an organisation that was explicitly psycho dynamically informed.

I have always felt that it was in this job that I ‘grew up’ professionally, as I have described earlier. A key reinforcer of that sense of personal growth was work that took me outside the clinical session into encounters with other professional groups and organisations. I have talked of the discovery of the potential to be ‘important’ earlier mostly in the context of the clinical encounter, but discovering I could be seen as a significant figure by other professionals was an important milestone. The job at the FWA threw me into this position.

Radical options for community engagement part 2

The second option in the last blog was much more appealing, closer to the ambitions that Bill Jordan had articulated and attended to in his Claimants’ union, and which I admired. There were serious problems with them however. First of all, they remained essentially professionally led, OK as a way of trying to attune professional skills and know how to client groups who might not be otherwise engaged, but thereby just a different way of doing essentially the same thing as we did in traditional office settings. Working in what was supposed to be a neighbourhood probation office in Sheffield helped fuel my scepticism – as far as I could see, the only significance of our ‘neighbourhood’ location was that clients had a shorter bus journey to get to us. Our location did nothing to make us more ‘community involved’ than any other team. Whether you saw a client in your office or in a church hall or GP surgery made little difference to the clients’ experience, other than relative convenience.

What is more, the more radical approach of locating the ‘office’ in the red light area proved unsustainable. Staff became exhausted and soon had their own lives to lead – no-one wanted to bring their children up in the locality and partners of probation staff did not necessarily want to engage in this experiment.

Lastly, I think it was not at all clear what the nature of professional work was understood to be in this more radical approach. All too easily being a professional was seen as a problem to be somehow disguised, as if this would break down barriers in working with offenders and convince them of the authenticity of our concern.

‘Radical’ options for community engagement

Let me start then with the notion of engagement with community organisations and other helping agencies as a central dimension of this broader community involvement. This was somewhat scorned as a strategy by the more radical probation officers who offered two possibilities of a different kind:

  • Radical community organisations that could act as alternatives to what were seen as middle class led and professionally controlled organisations were seen as the way towards effective community engagement. These were often welfare rights organisations by one name or another, had an ambivalent attitude to the respectable world of employment and conformity, and were dominated by a culture of ‘fighting the establishment’.
  • In Sheffield in the early 1970s, a project was put in place in a ‘red light’ area of the city where probation staff maintained a residential facility that was intended to take probation work to the locations where the problems were and engage them directly. There have been many variations of this theme with a range of levels of intensity, from women’s groups based in high rise flats, to arts projects, theatre groups and allotment projects.

Whilst I was dissatisfied with what we were doing in my office in Sheffield, I was not however persuaded by either of the two more radical options. The former seemed in a way, dishonest. The ‘radical’ organisations were as middle class as any other, another manifestation of the ‘polytechnic left’ who I thought wanted to play at change, denying their own identity of relative privilege and acting out their own problems with power and responsibility. They were fine as just another voluntary sector organisation providing a service to a few people for whom their style of provision appealed.