OK truth be told I didn’t hate the job, I just hated the hours.
When I finished graduate school in 2009 the job market wasn’t very good. So when I was offered a 3-11pm shift at a social service agency, that is world acclaimed as a leader in the supportive housing movement, I immediately accepted the offer.
The position was a social worker job at a homeless shelter in NYC for women diagnosed with Severe and Persistent Mental Illnesses.
As you’d probably imagine, working with 40 women in a communal living space was pretty challenging. The building itself had it’s own limitations in terms of size and space. It was a small shelter and the women had no personal space. The beds were set up dorm style, and the women didn’t even have shared rooms. They were on two completely open floors, 20 beds per floor.
Every client was diagnosed with a Severe Mental Illness, ranging from depression to schizophrenia. Many of the residents also had co-occurring physical illnesses and trauma histories. Some took psychotropic medication and were actively engaged in treatment with a psychiatrist. Others were not interested in treatment and/or were self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
The work was really mentally and emotionally challenging. Working with 40 perfectly “healthy” women in a communal living setting would be pretty difficult in most circumstances, so multiply that by all of the factors I mentioned above, and you’ve got a fair bit of chaos and crisis on your hands. It certainly wasn’t the best job I’ve ever had, but I’m grateful for the experience, as the work taught me a lot about myself and my own resilience.
Here are some of the skills I learned on the job:
- Calm Under Pressure. Graduate school can’t possibly prepare you to handle actual emergencies. In fact I think they try to shelter you from the types of emergencies you may actually encounter in the “field” so you don’t run away in horror. Toilets are overflowing, someone’s having a seizure, the police are pounding at the front door all at the same time, what do you do first? Calm under pressure is something I learned quickly. It’s a skill that has served me well both in my professional career and my personal life.
- Delegation. Most people think they are good at delegating responsibility. But they aren’t. When I started the job, I had very limited experience being a manager. I thought I was good at delegating, but ended up taking on a lot of tasks because I thought I would do them better and/or I didn’t want to burden my staff with them. Now that I’m a little older and a lot more experienced, I’ve become much better at delegating. I.e. “I’m going to call 911. You write a letter explaining what’s going on and you stay with the client until the ambulance arrives.”
- Drug Identification. Sounds strange, I know. But in my line of work it’s clinically important that I’m able to identify the signs and symptoms of drug use. Before I started the job I knew very little about drugs or drug use outside of what I learned in class. Now I can identify crack pipes, pushers and other drug paraphernalia. I can tell you when someone has been smoking crack and I know what to do and who to call when someone overdosed on heroin.
- Deescalation Strategies. Psychiatrically unstable clients who are hearing voices and have a large knife, depressed clients who want to kill themselves, clients under the influence who want to hurt others…you name it I’ve deescalated “it”. Physical fights, verbal attacks and clients who are a danger to themselves and others are all part of the work. If I had any other job I’d probably avoid these types of situations at all costs, but it’s my job and my ability to deescalate someone might save their life, or yours! (remind me again why social workers are paid so poorly?).
- Sacrifice. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices to advance in your career. It was obviously my choice to work 3-11pm, but during those years, I missed a lot of events, parties and get-togethers with friends. When everyone else was finished with their work day I was just getting started. It wasn’t easy, but 24 hour shelters require 24 hour staff.
- Dedication. While others stayed at the job a few months or a year, I stayed committed to the agency and got promoted quickly. I hated the hours, but I knew if I stuck with them and showed my dedication, I’d be moved to a daytime shift. There were many days when I wanted to quit or cry, or both, but I didn’t. I kept fighting and I got both the promotion and the daytime hours I wanted.
What are some of the priceless skills you learned at a job you hated (or liked)?