Nine months as a Support Worker, and a fairly steep learning curve (part 2)

I’ve spent the last nine months working with a great team of people. We make up a floating support team in South West London who work with people at risk of homelessness, but who are currently maintaining tenancies.

Many of my colleagues have done this job for years: they were out and about helping homeless people in London when I was still running around the playground playing tag with my friends. The amount of knowledge and experience they have of the role is mind-blowing.

In my second or third week, I went out on a home visit with a colleague, a guy who has worked as a support worker for years and is brilliant at his job. We were chatting about the client we had just seen, and I was expressing frustration and sadness over the horrible situation they were facing. I was stressed out, a little bit emotional, and still finding the role fairly overwhelming.

He asked me how I was finding the job, and in my typical fashion, I didn’t really express any of the emotions I was feeling. I couldn’t quite comprehend the fact that a lot of what i was going through, he’d gone through as well. As a support worker, a lot of the stresses I was struggling with, he’d grappled with as well.

I remember him saying to me, “we all started out with the same dream, Alex, we all wanted to save people.”

Now in that moment I remember thinking three things at once. Firstly, I realised he was offering me sound and insightful advice. Secondly I realised that what he said was a truth: most support workers probably start out with this dream, this ideal. It is this passion, and this sense of mission, which drives us to do the job.

Thirdly, I acknowledged the point he was making, which was that ‘saving people’ is not really possible. It is a dream, an ideal, a vision- but ultimately not realistic in the real world. It’s a noble idea, a desire which stokes purpose and dedication. But ideas rarely survive in full form, when they come into contact with the real world.

What he was saying was; you need to work with the world as it is, and not with how you’d like it to be.

Moreover, he was saying this with a wealth of empathy and understanding- we all go through this process Alex, we all realise we have to leave a portion of our hopes and dreams at the door when we enter the office to work in this role. 

I knew that everything he was saying to me was on point.

However, I just couldn’t take in what he was saying. I just couldn’t bring myself to reevaluate my own ideas and beliefs within these new parameters, at that time.

My thinking was- I’d only been in the job two weeks! Whilst I respected that most of my colleagues had done the job for years, and had gone through the inevitable process of replacing idealism for practicality, I wasn’t quite at that point yet. I was still earnestly hoping that I could somehow make it work where others hadn’t been able to.

I remember acknowledging the truth in the point he was making, whilst simultaneously refusing to accept it whole-heatedly. Not just yet.

Nine months later, and I have realised that the truth in the advice my colleague gave me was not something I could grasp and accept theoretically. It has been something I needed to learn through experience. I could understand the point he was making, but I couldn’t take it on board fully until I had worked the job myself for nine months,  and gone through the trials and tribulations inherent in working with troubled and suffering individuals.

I needed to grasp the practicalities myself, before I could understand the reasons why eventually, as a support worker, you have to take a step back from clients needs. It has been a process of  accepting the limitations of the whole notion of supporting people.

It took several days, and weeks, of bone-crunching tiredness, stress and lethargy to realise that I couldn’t keep giving quite so much of myself to my clients. Continuing to work to my own rule book wasn’t viable.

About a month ago, my colleagues words came back into my head- and at that moment I was able to connect with the inherent truth in what he was saying. As Support Workers we eventually do have to accept the world as it is, rather than how we would like it to be.

I know that I have a stubborn streak, and I also know that my own beliefs about the job and role were strong enough that I would hold onto them, instead of instinctively taking sound advice when it was offered. I have very strong beliefs and opinions on this, and I think my colleague saw me, in that moment of giving me advice.

I think he saw straight through me and clocked how earnestly and seriously I felt that as Support Workers we have a duty to at least try to save people, even when the odds against it ever happening are massive and insurmountable.

His experience dwarfed my own, and yet I still couldn’t take his advice on board without instinctively grasping it’s truth myself. This says a lot about me, but I won’t get into that here.

Here, I want to explore the various facets of the learning curve I have been on with this job, and the multiple realisation and elements of argument which led me to realise that I needed to step back from some of my own beliefs and accept new para-metres to work around.

This hasn’t meant that I have left my beliefs behind, only that I am learning to make them mesh with the practicalities of the real world. It’s been exciting, and will definitely allow me to do the job better, and get more out of it personally.

(Continued in section 3)


One thought on “Nine months as a Support Worker, and a fairly steep learning curve (part 2)

  1. I know what you went through; I trained as a teacher and suffered the same stress, work and sleep deprivation.

    As a student teacher, I only had a 75% timetable, but I still had 150 students and around 25 hours contact time. You can imagine the workload. A friend of mine who did become a teacher sowed some parsnips – the next he saw of them, they had set seed. It was 18 months later and he had had no time off and certainly not enough sleep – and he was not in a core subject like my own mathematics.

    I visited a friend in Hannover and spoke with someone there. It turned out that they had around half the workload, twice the pay and full administrative support.

    There are ways out of the cul de sac you found yourself in, but it does mean a lot more staff and a lot more pay. That way it might be possible that Britain can be like Germany in that there are barely any homeless people.

    It can be done, and proper care does cost money. I will add that better education helps enormously – and the UK has some of the most dismal figures in the industrialized world.


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