The Saviour fantasy and emergency responses by Stuart Sorensen

Stuart Sorensen

Stuart Sorensen

There’s an irony about health and social care work. More specifically there’s an irony about health and social care workers. The workers who want to save the world are the ones most likely to cause harm, to themselves and to other people.

In the trade we sometimes talk about the ‘saviour fantasy’. It’s an admirable quality in new and inexperienced staff but it’s unrealistic, dangerous and much less positive among more experienced workers. Those who come into this line of work expecting to make everything alright for everyone they meet tend to be committed and hard working. They have the potential to be excellent carers and advocates for those they work with. But those who hang on to their saviour fantasy over time demonstrate something else as well. Experienced saviours also demonstrate an inability to learn and that makes them dangerous.

We cannot please all the people all of the time. Nor can we ever know everything and we’re not able to do everybody’s jobs. It’s enough to ensure that we get our own part of the equation right. When we try to improve upon the work of others we risk meddling in what we’re neither trained nor sufficiently well-placed to understand.
Saviours are also much more likely to burn out themselves. If they expect only good things for their clients and take too much personal responsibility for ensuring positive outcomes for everyone they quickly become crushed when reality bites. There are many, many reasons why things don’t always work out in mental health care. Saviour fantasists blame themselves and the remorse they feel can be overwhelming.

If you think that you can save the world you are wrong. If you are prepared to work on getting your own piece of the task right you can be part of a team that makes a real difference. The choice may be yours but the price if you overstretch yourself will be paid by your service users.

Don’t be a saviour fantasist. It damages both service users and workers alike.

Dealing with emergencies

In the social care context an ‘emergency’ is something that requires emergency services to deal with it. Non emergency staff may have a supporting role to play in the proceedings but they are not responsible for sorting out emergencies and they are not expected to place themselves at risk by ‘going in’ untrained, unequipped and unprepared.

If it doesn’t need emergency services it’s not an emergency. It may be something that’s better sorted out sooner than later but it’s not worth putting yourself or others at risk simply because other people don’t want to wait until it’s safe or until the appropriate staff are present.

If you work in healthcare the same basic rules apply although you may legitimately be the appropriate person to deal with it. If so you will have been trained to do so and you should know the limits of your responsibilities very clearly. If you’re not able to deal with the emergency then call someone who can.

Emergency services are:

• Fire
• Police
• Ambulance
• Coastguard
• Mountain Rescue
Emergency services
All can be contacted by calling 999 or whatever internal emergency code your organisation uses (for example to summon the identified crash team in a general hospital).

If you’re a support worker in sheltered housing or a community care assistant for example then it’s not your job to deal with emergencies. Your job is to offer what assistance you can whilst help is on the way but only so long as it is safe to do so.

If you doubt this consider…

Would a fireman prefer to deal with one unconscious casualty or with one unconscious casualty and a disorientated amateur with no respirator or training in how to deal with smoke?
Would a paramedic prefer to deal with your injured colleague immediately or when you got around to calling 999 after trying to apprehend the assailant?
Would a policeman prefer to apprehend an assailant or deal with an assailant and organise help for a second victim as well?

Stuart Sorensen is a practicing mental health nurse, trainer and consultant. His website can be found at


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