I’ve been thinking a lot about management. For the last 2 years or so I’ve worked essentially unsupervised, and I’ve appreciated the breathing room. If you asked the managers I’ve worked for in the years since grad school, they might tell you I have a problem with authority. I actually had a supervisor tell me I was a narcissist! And he was one of the ones I liked. Go figure
Perhaps I don’t like being told what to do. But let’s break that down a little before we characterize me as insubordinate (and churlish–ha! couldn’t resist a little Key and Peele).
Whenever I entered into a new working environment, I naturally deferred to those in charge. I wanted to learn from the people who had been in the field longer than I had, because they had expertise to share. Fresh out of grad school, I longed for ongoing mentorship and guidance as I carved out my path in the world of social services.
Unfortunately, that’s not what I received. From 2005 to 2015, I worked for a slew of managers who were clinically incompetent, ethically questionable, and ultimately toxic in their managerial styles. If you’ve heard me complain about working in mental health, know that much of my discontent is based in poor leadership. During a time when I needed support, encouragement, and someone to look up to, my agency managers dismissed me and left me to fend for myself.
My colleagues and I worked hard in the field–i.e., with our clients, in their homes, in shelters, in facilities, etc.–only to have our efforts minimized. If we received any kind of acknowledgment, it was through increased caseloads and decreased support. “You’re handling being overworked and underpaid so well, I’m going to reward you by giving you MORE work and ignoring your genuine concerns about performance quality and self-care.” Or “I’ve given you no resources and have unrealistic expectations for you. Why aren’t you succeeding?”
And remember, we define success as numbers of clients treated, not quality of care.
And have I mentioned the mental illness that runs rampant in social service managers? I’ve never met more personality disordered individuals in my life–and they weren’t even my clients! By and large, my clients have inspired me with their resilience and unrelenting desire to reach their goals. My managers, on the other hand, have astounded me with their willingness to gaslight, manipulate, and violate boundaries.
Looking back, I know that I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression on and off since I was a teenager. But these crazy-making experiences drove me to a place of despair and hopelessness I didn’t know existed for me. I was forced to question my career choice, which had come to define my life at that point. Therein lies part of the problem, I know. But where do you spend the majority of your time during the week? At work. So if your work environment is unhealthy, it’s bound to infect you, no matter how hard you strive for the elusive “work-life balance.”
I have to admit that my post-grad experience doesn’t reflect everyone else’s. I know people whose pre-licensure employment wasn’t as fraught with toxicity as mine. I just know that my experience was an incredible disappointment, especially after the promising foundation my grad program offered me. Talk about bursting my bubble!
You might ask why I stayed. Why didn’t I quit mental health? Aside from the financial investment and uncertainty about what else I could be doing, I had examples of true leadership that held my head above the waves.
My off-site clinical supervisor listened, responded with care, and took me seriously. He was also knowledgeable and willing to teach. He was the consistent reminder that I could rise above the chaos throughout every infuriating job or managerial situation I encountered. Having a safe space to take my frustration and sadness made all the difference.
My other saving grace were the supervisors I met at the sites where my agencies placed me to offer additional services. At a juvenile justice program, I met a woman who works tirelessly for her staff and for the kids she serves. She is fierce but kind. She is stern but thoughtful. She has a heart for service and uses it to lead. She gives a damn!
At a retirement party last winter, I praised the ex-principal of an alternative school for the way he focused his efforts on supporting staff. He had their backs! And his response was “Of course!” Because to him, the only way to take care of your students/clients/customers, is to take care of your staff. If you take care of them, they’ll work hard for you!
A true leader sees his employees as real people with feelings, needs, and lives of their own. She recognizes the impact of the work they do and not only praises them but engages in conversation with them about their experiences. A true leader makes decisions based on the reality of what their workers face, taking into account the inherent humanity of social services, not just the bottom line!
Why is this not the prevailing attitude in mental health agencies? Mental health workers require a healthy working environment to do the work we do. How are we supposed to provide a wellspring of empathy when our agencies and our managers treat us like interchangeable work horses? How are we supposed to reinforce healthy relationships to our clients when our managers emotionally abuse us? How do we maintain a level of ethical competence when we watch our managers act in ways that put our licenses in danger by association? How do we find the indefatigable strength to be there for our traumatized and vulnerable clients when our managers weaken us with their indifference and ineptitude?
This is my experience. More pain than joy in a world where I thought I belonged. It’s a large part of what makes me question my place in mental health. I continue to process it, sometimes ad nauseam, I know. I’m just trying to decide what to do with it all. I’m not trying to change what happened, but I am trying to change how it lives inside of me.