The demand for public accountability under
Best Value has led to fresh sources of pressure for social care
staff. And for managers, explains Keith Fletcher, the art of
complaint management must now be mastered.
We welcome open government but it puts a lot
of pressure on our staff. What can we do about it?
A more open style of local government has
produced a new cause of staff stress: exposure and its
consequences. In the past four years the public vilification of
social services has greatly diminished. In its place, however,
there is a growing demand for public accountability under Best
Value: undoubtedly a positive development which will produce better
services in the end, but it adds greatly to the stresses on
Inspections and reviews of one kind and
another have rocketed. Complaint management is now a serious part
of social services and has produced its own cottage industry. The
process of public accountability and consultation is still, for the
most part, in its infancy but the greater transparency also creates
stress. All this has been added to the existing, but relatively
occasional, heavy duty enquiries such as the Part 8 reviews in
child protection and the still extensive enquiries into past abuse
of children on a large scale.
The management response to the changes
themselves has usually been very positive. Complaints, inspections,
responses to government reviews, the public availability of
information have been all transformed in the past five years. But
it is time now to manage their consequences for staff more
Take the example of Sally, who is a care
assistant in a residential unit. She is unqualified, and the level
of support and supervision she receives is frankly inadequate
though she had embarked on an NVQ programme. A few months ago a
relative of one of the residents complained about Sally’s general
attitude to him (the resident) and suggested that she had actually
hit him at one point.
Because of the allegation, the authority
suspended Sally on full pay while the complaint was investigated.
They offered her independent counselling, which she accepted, but
otherwise had no contact with her while the complaint was
investigated. The only other person she saw in that time was the
independent complaint investigator.
The report found that her approach to
residents was insensitive, but there was no evidence of physical
abuse. She was given an informal warning about her attitude and
reinstated – that was it. There was no written feedback; no
consideration of implications for change (apart from her own
behaviour); no detail about the ways in which her approach was
insensitive nor suggestions about what she should do about it.
Above all there was no recognition that, however justified and
appropriate, the process had been devastating for Sally.
Perhaps this is an extreme example but it
illustrates the general point: managing greater control,
accountability and openness includes managing the consequences for
These same staff also need to be encouraged to
be more critically aware of the world around them. “Whistleblowers’
charters” are becoming widespread. Poor management, poor practice,
above all abuse in any form, should be reported; and quite right
too. But it’s an extremely stressful business, riddled with
conflict, fear of reprisals, and distress at putting colleagues “on
We can’t remove these new stresses but there’s
a lot we can do to help staff to manage them by support, training
and willingness to help manage these changes. Policy makers and
managers are acutely concerned about staff shortages now and there
are high level discussions taking place everywhere. Stress is a
serious contributor and many of the reasons for it are well
rehearsed and include: challenging occasionally violent clients;
high risk, heavy responsibility, low autonomy, poor supervision;
macho management and repeated structural change; poor public
understanding and esteem; low pay; recruitment difficulties;
pressure from staff shortage and sickness itself.
We need to add increased exposure to the