HCA Hospice Care Head of Psychosocial Services, Tan Ching Yee, addressing her inspiration and calling to join the Social Work sector, the challenges faced in the field, and lessons and advice for her peers.
Ms Tan Ching Yee is a registered social worker with more than 25 years of working experience in the acute hospital and community settings. She drew most of her learnings working with patients and their families affected by neurological conditions. She currently oversees a team comprising medical social workers, a spiritual care counsellor and art therapists in HCA. Ching Yee was awarded the Outstanding Social Worker Award from the President of Singapore in 2019.
What inspired you to carve a career in social work?
I remember first having the thought of becoming a social worker during my junior college days. It was perhaps because I grew up seeing my parents always offering help to others, including relatives and neighbours. I remember sitting in and listening to how they mediated conflicts between neighbours and their children, and also their heartfelt advice to people who visited us. I almost did not make it to the social work profession as I failed my A-Levels. After much persuasion from my parents, I retook the exams, passed them and got myself a place in a local university. Social work was the natural choice.
What qualities should a good social worker have?
The capacity to reflect and the humility to learn. Regardless of how long we are in this profession, we will never have all the answers to the many difficult situations in the world. The capacity to reflect and be reflexive help us to learn and grow as a person and as a professional. Being reflexive is a term we use in social work referring to the process of bringing oneself back into the topic after one has reflected on it.
Why did you choose to join HCA?
In 2013, I was invited to supervise the team of HCA Medical Social Workers as an external consultant. I saw the demands and challenges the social workers faced, as they tried to fulfil their roles as best as they could. I felt their passion and commitment to do their very best. I witnessed the needs of the patients and their families and how community-based services have their unique set of challenges and constraints. Community-based services are, in many ways, not as well equipped as hospitals. My heart naturally gravitated towards HCA when I was looking to come back to healthcare.
As a mentor, how do you guide your team of social workers?
I try to strike a balance between ensuring that standards of practice and work expectations are met and recognising that we are all human with limitations and flaws, and we all grow differently and need nurturing.
Our team has regular meetings, tutorials and learning sessions either face-to-face or via WhatsApp or Zoom. They call me individually to consult on their cases or challenges at work. I try to create a safe space for sharing.
At the same time, I also remind myself: “What am I listening out for? What do they need from me?” The work we do draws so much from us — emotionally and spiritually. So it’s important to be supportive. As of last year, we managed to secure funding for my team to see a therapist or counsellor of their choice, outside of HCA, whom they can visit to talk about anything.
What were some of the greatest challenges you encountered in the early years of being a social worker?
As a new social worker, I was very eager to help those in need, rescue those in trouble and be there when they needed me. My goal was to make their lives better. The workload was high, easily over 40 cases at any one time and everyone needed help in one way or another. Putting in 14 hours a day at work was not unusual. The feeling of accomplishment was a strong motivation to do more, but it was also not necessarily the right thing to do.
The greatest challenge was in trying to meet everybody’s needs. Not everybody needed help in the same way. It took me some time to figure that out and even with that realisation, I didn’t have all the skills needed. It took a lot of learning, reflecting, un-learning and re-learning. Inevitably, after nine years, burnout set in. That was the greatest challenge of my career.
How did you recover from this burnout?
The feeling of burnout came with a sense of disillusion. I doubted whether I could return to social work, so I decided to take a year off. I enrolled in a course to learn something different to widen my career options, as I pondered my future direction in life.
In hindsight, allowing myself to take a break was the best thing I could gift myself. I started a daily routine of exercise, housework, cooking for my family and learning. I made a conscious effort not to be overwhelmed by feelings of loss and disillusion. By the end of that year, I felt ready to return to social work.
As a social work veteran, what are some of the greatest life lessons you have learnt?
I find myself saying this often recently: have faith in the process, the community we are in and in divine intervention.