Reminiscing back to my time as an agency worker working in children’s homes, emotions were mixed. The excitement of a new job, meeting new people, the desire to help looked-after children and young people, and a feeling of accomplishment in getting the work experience needed. Yet day-to-day, shift-to-shift, my emotions were on the other end of the spectrum: loneliness, confusion and fear. I compared my emotional experiences to those employed permanently, consistent members of the homes, rather than someone like myself, who came and went. Does support work in residential children’s homes impact agency staff differently to permanent staff, as the relational work undertaken is inevitably different? Are permanent staffs’ emotions felt more deeply, exposed or hidden more? Or do permanent staff receive more or less support from peers? One thing is for sure, mundane emotions in residential children’s homes are definitely few and far between.
I recall a conversation I had with a teenage girl I supported, Alison (pseudonym), on a long weekend shift in May. This was not by any means huge or significant, to either Alison or myself I am sure. The conversation had not crossed my mind until recently. Would I have acted differently, showed my feelings if I was contracted differently, a permanent support worker rather than an agency worker?
I didn’t know Alison well, of course, you never really do as agency staff; you’re usually there to make ratios not relationships. After a hectic attempt at making dinner we sat down to cheese and potato pie. Our conversation turned to birthdays. Alison’s birthday was not far away, but she wasn’t excited. I wondered to myself ‘what 14 year-old would not be excited about the prospect of their birthday?’ Alison could see the puzzled expression on my face, so she told me exactly why she wasn’t excited. Cleared it up for me with no hesitation. I was a sheltered 21-year-old, who had a ‘comfortable’ upbringing. As a result, I was confused and could not understand how something so life changing could 1) happen at all on a young girl’s birthday, and 2) be prepared and organised by qualified professionals. To move a young girl into local authority care, to a residential children’s home on her 9th birthday. As if Alison was not going to remember that date anyway.
This was a moment of shock and confusion, although I (hope I) didn’t show it. I only met Alison’s that day, hours before the conversation, so I just sat there, apologised and made an empathetic face; one she has probably seen many times, by other agency workers exactly like myself who she would probably never see again. I managed how I felt in that conversation, I played my feelings down. I wasn’t faking how I felt or pretending to show sympathy and empathy. I felt very sympathetic, very empathetic, but I played it down and hid my profound confusion. I thought back to my own birthdays when I was a child and compared my experiences to Alison’s. Her birthdays reminded her of when she moved into care – not presents, cake and sunshine. I wanted to tell her whoever did that were wrong for not simply waiting a week or even 24 hours, ask her more, show Alison how sorry I was, how shocked I felt, but also how confused I felt. Instead, I sat there, apologised masked the confusion I felt. I didn’t want to intrude. Alison didn’t know me, and I didn’t know Alison. I was not comfortable in showing my confusion, and I am not sure how comfortable Alison would’ve been if I had openly expressed this or probed further.
Looking back, I wonder if my actions and feelings would’ve differed in that moment if we did know each other? If I was a permanent member of staff, working with Alison for months or years. Would I have been more truthful and open with Alison about how I felt? I hope I would’ve been. Maybe this is agency work at its finest – masking true feeling due to lack of relationships. However, even if Alison and I did know each other, if we had known each other for years even, cared for each other tremendously; I could not relate to Alison. I had not gone into care on my 9th birthday. Would these feelings of confusion prevail? The development of a relationship may have changed these feelings of confusion. However, relationship or not, I could not identify with Alison due to my ‘comfortable’ upbringing and so it is possible the emotions I showed will have always been different from emotions I truly felt.
With hindsight, I recognise my contract may have helped me, protected me from the hurt of emotional investment. If Alison and I knew each other, had a caring relationship, maybe this conversation would have concerned and bothered me more. In all probability, I could have been invested, felt a more profound amount of sympathy and empathy because we had established a relationship prior to Alison’s revelation. I would have also felt frustrated on Alison’s behalf. Yet in reality, I only felt confused. A permanent staff member, working with Alison many hours a week or more, is expected to have cared more deeply for Alison and her revelation. Alison may have even opened up further, confiding in support. However, in reality, if I met Alison today she would perhaps not remember the conversation we had, probably she would not even remember my name. Hence, because of the nature of agency work (filling in the gaps and typically spending each working shift in a different place), the zero-hour contract acted as a protective guard for my feelings in the emotionally turbulent environment of residential childcare; safeguarding my emotional wellbeing at work.
I look back to a situation encountered in a different residential children’s home. I was supporting another young teenage girl, Maya (pseudonym). Again, it was a weekend shift. This home was ran by a private care provider. However, in this instance, I consider the contract not to have guarded me but to have exposed me; revealing my identity as the unsupported and vulnerable outsider, the one you can pick on. The one you can get away with picking on.
Maya was on a 3:1 staff ratio, living in annex attached to the main home: a solo-placement-type living arrangement due to recent violent behaviour and regular reports of going missing from care. Maya wasn’t supposed to work with agency workers at this moment in time, she was to be supported by in-house staff for these reasons. However, on this day, it was decided by management that I was to support Maya with two permanent support workers. Maya had recently lashed out towards a member of staff who was rostered to support Maya the day I arrived, but they refused. Hence, our changeover was deemed most appropriate and was conducted last minute, leaving myself (the inexperienced agency worker) unable to have any time to read Maya’s care plan. I was to find out all the rather important information about Maya colloquially, later on that day.
We met amicably. I was in the living room and Maya had walked in from the kitchen. Maya was standing over me as I sat crumpled into the sofa. She stares at me yet calls one of the permanent support workers by shouting their name. As Maya addresses the other support worker, continuing to glare at me, she quite simply asks them: “what was the name of that support worker I pushed down the stairs and put in hospital?”
Maya knew their name. I realised in that moment I was being implicitly threatened. I sensed the answer, without the question answered and I was frightened and nervous, fearing it. My senses were right, it was my name, she was called Beth.
“Beth wasn’t it?” Her support worker shrugged off. Maya sneered, “yes, that’s it” she said, her eyes still glaring down on me. I was petrified. I felt threatened by someone who had previously put a person, like me, a person with the same name as me, in hospital. All these feelings running through my body but I couldn’t show it. I didn’t want to give Maya what she was most likely after, a reaction. So instead of openly showing true fright, again, I just sat there. Still crumpled I did not move and neither did my eyes, they were glued to Maya. Essentially, I was having a staring contest with a 15 year-old, but it felt so real. I had butterflies in my stomach, worried that the next time I went upstairs to use the toilet Maya would jump out from behind me and repeat past events. I faked my emotions that day. With Alison I played emotions down, but with Maya it felt necessary to pretend to fake emotions that I did not at all feel. I stared Maya down like I couldn’t care less, acting cool, calm and collected. But of course, deep down I did care, I was scared. Yet, that was it and the conversation was done. Switched off like a lightbulb and inside a sigh of relief.
I was a stranger to Maya, someone to get a reaction out of and there was a means to do that, my name. Yet, even as permanent staff, supporting Maya regularly, it is conceivable that the conversation is likely to have happened, in some form or another, as all relationships have to start somewhere. Would an implicit threat like this always be an initial event? In this moment, I believe I was being vetted. Maya was working out whether she could get a reaction out of me. Yet, hypothetically speaking, what if this situation was not part of a vetting process and had happened after a relationship was developed between Maya and I. Perhaps I would not have felt so scared, so nervous and threated. A relationship may have allowed me to see past Maya’s threatening behaviour, therefore able to supress my feelings of fear. However, it is likely the threat would simply never occur in this manner as this was a vetting process. Using threat as a tactic to assess the new support worker. Maya would not need to examine me if we had a relationship, she would already understand me and my feelings.
The most significant conclusion that day, was not Maya’s actions, nor mine, or my feelings for that matter, but the other support worker. Where was my support? Evidently, their job was to support Maya, but I was scared crumpled into the sofa, I felt lonely and unsupported, a vulnerable outsider and someone to be picked on. Only now, looking back, I can I appreciate this feeling of loneliness. Of course, the other support worker may have felt threatened by Maya’s behaviour, like I did. However, looking back, I can’t help but to think if I was permanent staff, working alongside both Maya and her other support workers for months, even years, the conversation may have been different. The other support worker may not have shrugged off the question and simply replied. I would hope that they would have spoken up, called out Maya for her intimidating behaviour. In turn, the feelings I felt that day could have been mitigated, less severe. Deep down, peer support may have helped instil more calm and settling feelings, a protective shield from threat and intimidation. I truly may have been cool, calm and collected. Perhaps I would have felt more secure within myself. This is what feels significant when I reminisce about my time in residential childcare, as feelings of isolation were not one-off situations. Support was next to none, deep down you were on your own during shifts, an outsider. Yet again, maybe that is the essence of agency work, the product of making ratios not relationships.
Upon reflection, I left this job with more questions than answers. As a masters student in psychology gaining work experience, I was under the assumption this job would provide answers. Answers to questions like what future career I wanted, what working with challenging behaviour is like in practice, instead of on lecture slides. As well as answers to deeper questions like how I cope in emotionally demanding roles, whether I even can cope in emotionally demanding roles. In reality, although maybe I did get some answers, my job raised new questions. Questions that concerned how I managed my emotions at work, why I hid my true emotions? Often watering down my feelings and sometimes showing false feelings. Was I doing this for others’ benefit or for mine?
I wonder whether my experiences as an agency worker differed from permanent staffs’ experiences. Were they better or worse? Did the contract hinder or help staff? With Alison, it is likely my contract guarded me from the emotional burden of relational work. A contractual coping mechanism that stopped me from caring deeply; unable to be both relationally or emotionally invested. However, with Maya, it was different; I was vulnerable and alone, not known to other staff. I had no support in a brief but intimidating encounter because quite simply, relationships had not been established. My contract did not guard me emotionally, but exposed my feelings to the manipulation of another. Maybe these experiences expose the consequences of making ratios not relationships. One thing is clear from my time working in residential childcare, whether good or bad, both emotions and relationships are key.
 Although agency staff are usually employed to cover ratio, it is acknowledged that some agency staff may choose to work in the same place as much as possible to make relationships.