Phil Etherington
Phil during his time as a prison officer
Name: Phil Etherington
Role: Support Worker
Age: 66
Region: Leicestershire
Previous career: Prison officer

What did you do before you became a support worker?
I started off in the Merchant Navy when I was 15, and then did stints in a restaurant, fruit and veg stall and engineering factories before joining the prison service in 1990. I stayed until 2014, so I worked there for just short of 24 years.

Prison work wasn’t something I’d ever considered and it’s not something I thought I could do until I did it. I started off working in the main prison wings but spent the last 14 years of my time there in a therapeutic community, where my days were spent speaking to prisoners serving life sentences in group sessions, questioning and challenging their beliefs and attitudes to their offences, and showing them that there is a future for those who want it.

What made you decide to become a support worker?
I got to the age of 62 and realised I was getting a bit old for the physical elements of my role. But after 18 months of retirement I was fed up! I knew some people locally who had worked in the prison services and were now support workers and they suggested I might be a good match for Hft. I got the job three years ago and have been supporting people to live in their own homes ever since.

What are the biggest similarities and differences between your previous role and support work?
The two roles are vastly different but both require great communication skills and involve listening to what people want and not trying to impose your will on them. Prison work isn’t all about being authoritarian and bossing people around, although that does come into it. It’s really about listening to what people are scared of, what their ambitions are, and what they can do, and that’s true of anyone – we all want to know that we have a voice, that we’re being heard.

However, there are also huge differences in my work now. People I support lead on everything we do and are much quicker to see the benefits of learning new skills, and often understand straightaway that it’s worthwhile. There are fewer time constraints as a support worker – we work at the pace of the people we support, making sure they’re able to develop new skills. It’s about having the patience to say “it doesn’t matter if it takes ten minutes to chop up an apple” and not putting too many time boundaries on things.

What have the highlights of your support work career been?
I can’t think of a bad part of being a support worker. One of the best moments was when we went to see Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat in an open air theatre with a large group of the people we support. Seeing people singing every song all the way through along with the cast was incredible and unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Doing this job opens my eyes every day. There’s always something different and that’s what makes me want to come to work.

Photo of Phil and someone he supports
Phil supporting Nick on holiday

I was also lucky enough to support a number of people to go on a cruise holiday. Unfortunately I was unwell for one of the days and wasn’t allowed to go ashore. Even though other members of staff were available to support him, the gentleman I shared a cabin with refused to leave me as he wanted to make sure I was okay and didn’t like the idea of me being alone. That takes some beating.

It’s been good to start learning again too. I did an online course in medication with a local college and I’ve got my care certificate now which was really interesting. Hft don’t let you stop learning!

What has support work taught you?
Support work has shown me that there are still so many new experiences to have.  It’s taught me that there are no limits to what people can achieve, regardless of disability. Each person I support is an individual with individual goals and abilities. More people should experience it.

What do you bring to your role as a career changer?
I bring my life experience, as well as my communication and listening skills and my willingness to try new things. I go to the gym every Monday with a young man and he’s so keen to work hard in the gym, it makes me have to work at the same time! I have jelly legs afterwards.

Another man is learning Spanish and watching him interact with his teacher is eye opening because he’s so intelligent. There are people who go horse riding as well – I can’t ride a horse, I’m frightened of them, but they don’t have any fear. I also know two people who competed in the Special Olympics which I think is incredible. As long as my health stays good and I continue to provide a service, I don’t see a reason to stop support work anytime soon.

What would you say to someone thinking of becoming a support worker?
There’s no one set personality for support work so don’t be afraid of trying it. You lose nothing by trying, but you can gain so much.

Find out more about becoming a support worker on our jobs page.