Coping with mistakes, mistakes in social care

Coping with mistakes

By Gemma Raw

How to learn from mistakes and move on

Working in social work is an extremely pressured environment.

Knowing that you are responsible for the lives of vulnerable children, young people or adults can be extremely stressful. Then there are the additional pressures of time constraints, budget cuts and the increasing possibility of social worker burnout. Combined, it is easy to see how mistakes can happen – but in the social work profession, it’s how you deal with your mistakes that matters.

Admit your mistakes as soon as possible – don’t try to cover them up

Once you’ve realised that you’ve made a mistake, the first thing you need to do is to react fast. Whether it’s a simple admin error or you’ve accidentally forwarded a confidential email to the wrong person, it’s imperative that you admit to your mistake as soon as possible.

Do not try to cover up a mistake – it will not only cause more problems in the long run but if your boss hears about your mistake from someone other than you, it won’t come across well.

This is true of any profession, but in a social work setting it’s even more important because mistakes can lead to the involvement of Social Work England. If they are aware of a mistake, they could investigate you and decide that you are unfit to practice. Taking steps to admit your error and asking for help to remedy the situation will always stand you in good stead.

Apologise in person

Depending on the mistake, you may find yourself required to make an apology. 

If you’ve made a workplace-based mistake such as accidentally forwarding an email to the wrong person or being overheard talking about someone you work with, then make sure that you apologise. Try not to hide behind emails – sometimes apologies must be done face-to-face so that the offended party will know your sincerity.

If you’ve made a mistake relating to a client, then speak directly with your line manager who will be able to advise on the best course of action.

Be open and accountable

Once you’ve made the mistake, there is no turning back time.

You can’t undo the error, so it’s important that you're open and hold yourself accountable. You need to show that you understand what the mistake was, why it happened and how you can avoid repeating the same mistake.

In your supervision sessions, try to discuss the mistake as much as you can. You may feel embarrassed or even upset about the situation, but it will give you a real opportunity to think about how you would handle it differently if it arose again.

Try to learn from it and use it to inform future practice

Everyone makes mistakes. Some may be bigger than others, but it’s how you handle the fall-out from your mistake which will make the biggest difference to your career.

You need to demonstrate to your team, your line manager (and potentially even Social Work England) that you have learned from your mistake, and that it has turned you into a better practitioner. Once you’ve reflected upon why the mistake was made in the first place, how can you educate yourself so that it doesn’t happen again?

You could ask a co-worker to act as your mentor, or you could request that your line manager allows you to attend specific training to help improve your knowledge. It’s important that you use this as an opportunity to develop and further your skills to support your practice.

Accept the consequences

Finally, you’ll need to fully accept the consequences of your mistake.

It’s important that you always act professionally. You may be questioned by your line manager, or in extreme circumstances, you may be questioned by Social Work England. The best course of action is to answer all questions fully and be as helpful as possible. If you are handed a punishment, then you need to accept it and take the time to think about how you can use this experience to help make you into a better practitioner.

We have written a selection of pieces around navigating your social work career.