A Love Story About Work: Carol's Social Services Team

Work in social services, and especially work in direct services to the most vulnerable people in society, is by its very nature a human endeavor. People often choose this field because they are compassionate and motivated to care for others. But social services can be some of the most physically and emotionally demanding work there is. Couple that with the fact that these positions tend to be some of the lowest paid, and it is no surprise that compassion fatigue and turnover are a big challenge in this field.

This makes Carol’s story an especially heart-warming Love Story About Work.

Carol went to work at age 19 as a member of a 24/7 home care team for adults with disabilities working for a private social services agency. They worked with clients in the intimate setting of the client's home providing for their most basic human physical needs. They also filled social and emotional needs through their daily companionship and outings that infused richness and meaning into daily life. They worked hard on a 24-hour rotating shift with only a 10-minute overlap between team members. Using a shift log, they communicated patient notes to keep the next caregiver up to speed on the client.

The team was committed to humanizing care, to creating a supportive, dignified environment. That attention to the humanity of their clients carried over into their relationships with each other, and found expression, with the written log as their primary touch point to say, “Hello,” and encourage each other. They shared a creativity and positivity that defied the usual wear and tear that often comes with this work.

This was tested and strengthened when one their long-time clients was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing, degenerative disease. The situation was both physically demanding and emotionally draining. Within one week, the team had to start providing round the clock intensive medical care for her. They cared deeply for this woman as a person and were naturally upset by her prognosis. Initially they each struggled with replenishing themselves in the face of all these sudden demands.

But their creativity and loving connections served them well. Each team member made a special effort to make her presence and support felt by the others. The shift log became the focus of this support. They wrote each other, what they called “Love Notes” every day. And through these simple handwritten notes, they cared for each other and saw each other through this painful, challenging time. Carol felt cradled by her teammates which bolstered her ability to sustain herself while she cared for the client.

When the client passed away, the team came together to honor her life and support each other in their sorrow. Leaders spoke to their human needs and the organization provided a grief counselor. These team members knew their organization saw them as people, understood their work, and cared for them. Years later while most have moved on to other jobs, they are still connected. When former clients pass away, they attend the services together celebrating their clients’ lives and their bonds formed through loving work. 

This social services agency was clearly intentional about care for people and service to customers. Every year they held a retreat focused on clients and this mindset was an embedded part of the culture supported by leaders throughout the year. This attention to values set off a virtuous cycle: By treating both employees and clients as fully human, they attracted team members like Carol who shared those values. Carol and her colleagues embodied love and care in their work which strengthened the culture even more, which strengthened teams and attracted even more likemindesd folks. Culture wasn’t just words in an orientation or on a poster. Their loved based values were lived and constantly strengthened. Beautiful.

Carol said that this experience gave her an early understanding of her power to make a difference as an individual on a team. She knows she has a choice about how she shows up, and she can influence an entire team.

She also pointed out that an organization has to focus on more than just budget. Private organizations face bottom line pressures to stay competitive in order to stay in business, while public organizations face increasing service expectations with constant funding pressures. In either case the bottom line can become the primary focus. But some of the most important work in any organization -- and it is everyone’s work -- is to know your values and make those values active.

She’s right. For any member of the organization, whether a leader setting strategy, a manager operationalizing policy, or an employee completing daily tasks, this means asking how can I actively embody my values in this work today?

When our work is intentionally living those human-centered values, then we show respect, care, empathy, and commitment for customers and team members, and our work becomes a Love Story.

Do you have a Love Story About Work? We'd love to hear your story. Use the comments below for a quick share or email me for an interview as part of the research or maybe a blog post.

*"Love Stories About Work" are drawn from my research interviews on fear and love in the workplace. These stories are used with permission but the names of people have been changed and organizations not identified to protect and respect the identity of participants. I am so grateful to all who have shared their stories with me so that we can learn from their experiences and build a more human workplace.