Long-awaited guidelines on stress are needed now, say social
workers Natalie Valios reports.
Cuts in services but more clients, less workers but increased
responsibilities, physical attacks and verbal abuse – it is hardly
surprising that stress is a growing problem in social work.
So the joint guidelines on stress from Unison and the British
Association of Social Workers due next month are eagerly
Aimed at workers and employers, the guidelines will show how
stress can be recognised and dealt with.
‘Ignore stress at your peril,’ BASW’s director Clive Walsh
warned local authorities. ‘Social work is a stressful occupation,
but that does not mean it is an open door for staff to deal with
‘Social workers are in the business of helping other people
cope, so there is a feeling they should not need help themselves.
Staff might think there is an element of failure if they admit to
not being able to cope,’ Walsh said.
Support for staff could be low on employers’ priority lists as
services come first, or because employers have not considered
support to be necessary, he added.
‘We need to work in a culture where it is acceptable to say “I
am not coping”, so the burden can be removed and staff can cope
‘Local authorities must allow people to be human so they do not
have to pretend to be adequate beyond reason.’
All employers should have a properly resourced staff care policy
so that support to each member of staff is guaranteed.
The demand for stress guidelines for social workers came from a
case which made headlines in 1994. Social worker John Walker
successfully sued Northumberland County Council, claiming overwork
and stress in his job as area manager led to two mental
The council is planning an appeal, but could face damages of
£200,000 if it loses.
But two surveys, conducted in the year since the Walker case,
reveal that no progress has been made to reduce the stress levels
of social workers.
When surveyed, frontline managers within Sheffield Family and
Community Services reported unmanageable stress. All 40 managers
felt swamped by pressure.
The research, conducted by Keith McKinstrie, assistant service
manager for Sheffield Family and Community Services, discovered
that stress levels did not vary between the three specialisms –
children and families, elderly people and disability.
A root cause of stress was that none of the group had formal
training as managers. Lack of clarity about their role and what was
expected of them left staff floundering.
‘Senior managers must create a climate of openness to talk about
stress and accept that they are all potential sufferers.’
Management needs to be aware of stress among staff and provide
support and supervision. A complaints procedure should be in place
and occupational health should be a positive service.
Staff can experience constant tiredness and ulcers, sick leave
through stress and, in extreme cases, hospital admission. But staff
who take sick leave through stress are in a minority compared to
those who continue working but do not perform properly because of
stress, said McKinstrie.
Research published by the National Institute for Social Work
last year revealed that experienced workers, mainly residential
staff, had withstood physical attacks, threats of attack and verbal
abuse resulting in stress.
BASW and Unison are hoping the new guidelines next month will be
implemented by social services departments and their staff and will
start to reduce stress levels.Melanie Friend