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122 APRIL 2009
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The vulnerability of residential work

Julia Staples

Some time ago the Residential Care Association studied the stress of the work we do. This led me to consider what it is about residential work which I find stressful and how this stress is alleviated.

Residential work – where one is living with one’s clients for the whole of the working day – is demanding. There are the sheer physical demands of caring for others and responding to their needs – getting up in the night to admit a child or to sit with a frightened person, continuing the next day to join in or initiate children's games and activities, being constantly available whatever the crisis – until the whole of one’s body aches with fatigue.

Demands of others
Demands are also made by managers, who may have unclear or conflicting aims and by trade unions which, intending to be supportive, may end up by being restrictive. There are the demands of the unexpected. The plans which have to be changed at the last minute because a child is suddenly admitted or discharged, visitors turn up, or someone becomes ill.

There is the stress of the unknown. We simply do not know what will happen next week, the next day or even the next minute. There can be the stress of working with people to whom we are not related, whom we often have not chosen, and perhaps we would not have chosen had we known them.

Feeling exposed
Possibly one of the main sources of stress for me when I began residential work was the exposed nature of the job. Previously I had always had some part of my life which was private and into which I could retreat – my own bedroom, a quiet corner to “do my own thing”, a walk on my own or with friends. Living in a small group home with a match-box sized bedroom, paper thin walls, and children in and out all the time put an end to most of this. All my movements were carefully monitored by nine or more pairs of eyes and the inquisitiveness of children who not only wanted an account of all my movements if I left the house, but who would also want to know such details as what I had for breakfast on my day off.

On returning from a night spent away from the unit, I would sometimes find my own belongings pushed aside, and the pyjamas and shaving tackle of the relief housefather strewn around my room. I recall my horror at this invasion of my privacy as I considered it on the first occasion. However, one becomes accustomed to this sort of open living and finds ways of coping.

One’s own life
I have felt it essential to maintain my own home, friends and interests away from the job. Naturally at times these do overlap, but at least I now know how to manage the overlap and thus maintain an area of some privacy. Residential workers may also be made to feel exposed in particular cases which arouse public concern. Some time ago I was involved in looking after a family who hit the headlines in the local and national press. With some relief I read the father’s letter to the paper and realised that where he had mentioned my name, the print read “identification deleted”. However, when the case came to court and I was one of the witnesses, my name was in the papers, and I felt that all the world was watching. Partly because of the publicity, partly because of the court hearings, I felt very exposed – as if I were the one standing trial. This case was rare, but the feelings it aroused are common in residential workers where parents, colleagues, other professionals, and society in general may all call one’s activities and judgements into question.

Lonely in the crowd
It may seem paradoxical in a job where one is constantly with other people, that another stressful feeling is loneliness and isolation. This was also highlighted for me by the case I mentioned. I found standing in a witness box before a court and the press an intensely lonely experience. No one could share that feeling at that time. But loneliness – perhaps more accurately isolation – is frequently experienced by residential workers. However much we enjoy the children or other people for whom we care, there are times when we long for an “outsider”, perhaps simply to link us with the rest of the world. I remember camping with three children and desperately needing another adult person to talk to, not because things were difficult or going wrong, but just to relieve my own isolation. Similarly, I remember one day when I was alone with several babies, the relief I felt when the telephone rang.

I think another source of stress for me has been fear. Children seem to know our fears, and have a way of making us come face to face with them. When I feared I would lose control of a group of children, I lost control of them. When I feared things would be difficult, they usually were. Perhaps the only way of really coping with this is by developing insight into ourselves. This is gained in many ways: through training, group relationships and individual relationships. Through these experiences we can learn to overcome our fears, and the job becomes more manageable and less stressful in a particular area. If we are at all sensitive (as hopefully residential workers are) we are constantly open to all the feelings and emotions of the people with whom we work. We share in their joys and are vulnerable to their pain. Residential workers possibly care for some of the unhappiest people in our society and I think a great source of stress for me has been the constant sharing of pain and grief, sometimes leaving an overwhelming sadness. It is painful working with children who have been separated from their families, who are rootless and troubled. It is painful working with old people who are deserted by their families, and who spend their last days longing for the past.

Inner resources
In order to cope with the stress of residential work, I have mentioned some of the things which I have found necessary: having my own home, friends and interests, training, and helpful professional relationships. I also feel it is essential that one has one’s own inner resources upon which to draw. An inner store of good experiences, which is usually laid down for us in our own childhood, helps us to keep going when things are hard. Another necessity I feel is one’s own system of beliefs and values which provides us with a firm base from which to work. My own beliefs and experience as a Christian have influenced my choice of essential resources which I consider necessary if anyone is to survive the stress of residential work. I see these as commitment, faith and hopefulness. Having concentrated upon the stress of residential work, I would like to conclude with this quotation from Clare Winnicott in Child Care and Social Work. She says:

” ... the work itself is infinitely complex and subtle and constantly challenging the resources of the adult to the full. But like most things in life, where costs are high, so can be the personal rewards and satisfactions.”

This feature: Staples, J. (1995). The vulnerability of residential work. The Child Care Worker, 13, 10. p. 11.

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