Social workers more likely to turn to food than to managers as way of coping with stress

Nearly a third of the respondents to our exclusive survey have taken time off due to stress in the past year

Credit: Rex/Cultura (posed by models)

Social workers are more likely to eat comfort foods than talk to their supervisor or line manager as a way of coping with work-related stress, a Community Care survey of more than 1,000 frontline staff has shown.

Almost all of the social workers who responded to our online survey said they feel moderately or very stressed (96%), yet half said they do not feel like they can tell their line manager.

Sweeping it under the carpet does nobody any good.

Helga Pile, Unison

The most commonly given reason for this is because everyone on the team is stressed they don’t want to be the one to complain, followed by the fact that most managers are themselves under a lot of pressure, so social workers feel it wouldn’t help.

However, around a third of respondents said they feel like their manager is the source of the problem or wouldn’t understand or care.

Nearly half (46%) said stress and the effects of stress are not discussed openly in their workplace.

“Staff recognise it not just them; their colleagues and their managers also work in the same stressful environment – but this is not a reason to grin and bear it,” said Blair McPherson, a former local authority director of community services and author of Equipping managers for an uncertain future.

“We all need the support of colleagues, our managers, friends and family when we are feeling stressed.”

Three in 10 social workers told us they have taken time off work due to work-related stress or depression in the past year.

When asked about the future, two in 10 respondents said they feel “very close” to burning out and needing to take time off, while more than half (59%) say they worry it could happen in the future if things continue as they are.

The most popular method for coping with stress is to talk to colleagues (85%), following by talking to friends and/or family (70%), eating comfort foods (60%) and talking to their supervisor/line manager (49%). A third of social workers use alcohol to cope with work-related stress and 17% use prescription drugs, such as anti-depressants.

The most common reasons for stress among social workers are heavy caseloads and the fear that something will go wrong.

“It is very worrying that so many have reached such high levels of stress,” said Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social care. “Social workers struggle with huge workloads and the public scrutiny on them leaves them in constant fear that something will get missed and someone will suffer at a result.

“Employers must take steps to encourage people to report when they feel stressed and seek help before another tragedy happens. Sweeping it under the carpet is just storing up problems and will drain social work teams dry, which does nobody any good.”

Other key findings from our survey include:

  • 73% of social workers say their caseloads have gone up in the past year, with 92% of those saying this has caused additional stress.
  • 78% of respondents say stress is affecting their ability to do their job properly.
  • 76% have considered leaving their jobs in the past year due to stress, although only 11% have actually done so. Two-thirds have considered leaving the social work profession altogether.

Anne Mercer, professional advisor for the College of Social Work, said: “We are concerned to learn that nearly all social workers responding to this survey are either moderately or very stressed as a result of their work, to the extent that nearly a third have had to take time off work in the past year.

“While we understand that heavy caseloads are often the reality of social work practice, it is of the utmost importance that social workers are properly supported to carry out their role, in line with the Standards for Employers of Social Workers. This means high-quality continuing professional development, and protected time for reflective supervision with a senior social worker each month.

“It is essential that social workers are provided with this support to enable them to perform to their full potential and minimise the risk of sickness due to stress-related illness.”

About the survey

Our online survey was filled in by 1,047 frontline social workers, 132 assistant team managers and team managers, 16 senior managers, 40 support workers, 35 students and 57 people who defined themselves as “other”, e.g. consultant social workers, IROs and AMHPs.

The majority (67%) work in children’s services, followed by 24% in adult services and 8% in mental health. Most work for local authorities and are based in England; 13% define themselves as newly qualified social workers, 84% have been social workers for at least a year and 4% are not currently practising.

Percentages are rounded to the nearest whole number, so may not add up to exactly 100%.

More from Community Care

2 Responses to Social workers more likely to turn to food than to managers as way of coping with stress

  1. Elaine Ellis December 4, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

    It does not surprise me in the least to hear this – given that I have myself been in said situation in the past. I can completely identify and empathise with those Social Workers who stated that they found it impossible to discuss stress, and to talk about it with Management.

    We have an immense problem in this country, in that we STILL continue to perceive those people who suffer from stress as ” a problem” – we blame them for being “unable to cope”, “weak” or “inadequate”. This is despite the fact that stress is a commonplace condition, affecting a large proportion of the populace at any given time. It is also despite the fact that we are supposed to have Disability Discrimination Legislation in place that means that employers (and others) cannot pick on people who are experiencing disabilities or long-term health problems (including stress-related issues).

    Attitudes in the main would appear to be extraordinarily hypocritical (just take a look at comments left on websites such as MIND, or ACAS, NHS Choices or Bullyonline). Innumerable people are obviously experiencing stress whilst at work (chat-rooms and forums devoted to stress are highly evidential of this) and some are even trying to report, and “fix” it – however, many are receiving little support to help them do so. Instead, they are finding that the matter is “swept under the carpet”, overlooked, ignored. Worse still, some are finding that they are openly criticised for being stressed; they are accused of not coping, and of needing to “pull themselves together”.

    It would appear to me that stress is an enormous issue – quite simply because this country has such a two-faced attitude towards it. On the surface, we pass legislation about discrimination, we encourage employers to monitor health and safety, we have Occupational Health Departments. On the surface we encourage recognition of stress, and talk about it as something to be discussed, something that affects the workplace, something to seek help for. On the surface, we entertain the notion that people suffering from stress are not to blame. All of this is “what we preach”. What we practice is often VERY different! People are criticised and blamed for being stressed. Seen as incompetent, or poor at coping. Seen as a nuisance and an inconvenience should they have to take time off work, or out of other pressing commitments, due to stress. Seen as a nuisance if they must attend medical appointments (due to stress), or take time out to recuperate, or to attend to personal problems that may be causing/adding to stress (e.g. family problems, moving house, caring responsibilities). In short, people suffering from stress are seen as a PAIN. Society merely pays “lip service” to the concept of helping people with stress. Employers boast about having “anti stress” policies, or “family friendly” workplaces – in reality these do not exist. Those very same employers begrudge the person taking time off to care for an infirm relative, gossip maliciously behind the back of the overworked colleague who admits to being stressed, threaten with dismissal the person who experiences sickness absence because of stress-related illness!

    Stress is a problem, in that it exists (and persists) within a vicious cycle. Something (e.g. increased workload, and short-staffed office) triggers the stress in the first case. After this, incidental – and often small – things may keep feeding it. The stressed person knows they are stressed – feels anxious all the time about this fact – feels anxious about being seen as unable to cope. This, in itself, fuels more stress. Add to that a day of rushing from appointment to appointment… add a bad case of indigestion… add a child who has to go home early from school with toothache… add a parent who must leave work early to collect their child from school… add an unpleasant visit to the Dentist… I am pretty sure that you MUST get the picture! THIS is how stress works. THIS is how stress feeds itself. Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy!

    There are other things, too, about stress that make it a difficult (and persistent) problem. For one thing, stress most likely occurs where individuals feel that they have little or no control over the circumstances causing it. For example, a person is a carer for their elderly and infirm mother. This cannot be avoided. Their mother is ill, and their father is himself elderly. Therefore, the mother requires extra assistance, which can only come from the person in question. This is stressful. To add to the stress, the person has asked his/her mother if she would accept somebody else providing said care (as it is not always easy to juggle work, home life, and caring commitments). Mother refuses, point blank! This fuels yet more stress, as now mother is angry, and the person feels guilty. The person also feels helpless, and under pressure, as mother has reduced the options – thus taking away control from the person providing care.

    Psychologists call this “locus of control” – where the locus of control is external (i.e. an outside event triggers something that happens to a person) a person feels they have little power over the event. Many events are beyond people’s control – illness or bereavement, divorce, partner having an affair, having to care for a relative, disarray after moving house – these are but a few examples. ALL can lead to stress, as they create an unavoidable, and problematic, situation.

    Stress is additionally made worse where a person feels that they are unable to talk freely and honestly about what is going on. Where they feel they will be ignored, judged unfavourably, or overlooked. If a person feels that they have genuinely supportive others about them, the chances are that their stress will be short-lived. They have a network of support to assist them in dealing with it. If, on the other hand, they feel (for whatever reason) that they must “go it alone”, they may soon be overwhelmed. Stress is peculiar, in that sufferers can feel guilty, just for being stressed. Their fear of being judged harshly may increase, and as a consequence, they find stress hard to talk about. Thus, the sensitivity of those about them is hugely important. To make a person with stress feel openly like a nuisance for being stressed, is to actively prolong their stress. Employers and Managers should be aware of this. Those who are not, are both ignorant and unenlightened. They are also intolerably cruel.

    People who are stressed need to be attended to in a genuinely sensitive and supportive manner. They need to be encouraged to open up, and to evaluate their position – with a view to finding and working on sensible and sustainable solutions. Often, those who are stressed find that the stress “muddles” the thought process – they cannot think clearly. This is why it is ever so important that they have someone empathic and supportive to talk to. They require a “sounding board”; someone to help put matters in perspective, to sift through the options, and to home in on solutions.

    People who are stressed DO NOT need to be ridiculed, or shouted at, or given warnings, or treated as a nuisance. They DO NOT need to hear threats (“If you don’t get yourself sorted out, we may be looking at dismissal”), criticism (“why can’t you pull yourself together?”), ridicule (“Good grief, can’t you cope?”), prejudice (“Are you going nuts, or something?”)… THESE things just ADD to the stress. People suffering stress CANNOT be coerced, threatened, bribed, frightened, or “guilt tripped” into NOT feeling stressed any more! The more pressure that is piled on them – even if it is just verbal pressure – the MORE stressed they will become. Employers and Managers ought to be aware of this fact, too. Those who somehow believe that they can “intimidate” a person into feeling less stressed, and into showing fewer effects of stress… be warned… your actions will most likely have the CONVERSE effect!

    Whilst spiralling case loads, shortage of staff, lack of resources, uncertainty about pay, terms and conditions can all add up to create a generally stressful working environment, these things should NOT be used as excuses to “justify” a persistent atmosphere of stress and negativity. In particular, they should NOT be used by Managers as a way to minimise the issue of individual workers’ stress levels. Managers have specific duties, one of which is to provide support to their team members. This includes the acknowledgement of stress, and the helping of stressed staff.

    It is NOT good enough for Managers to respond to the issue of stress with negative and hostile attitudes – or to seek to blame the person who admits to stress. Such behaviour is counter-productive. It leads to animosity, mistrust, and eventually, to complaints. Nor is it acceptable for Managers to respond to reports of stress by individual staff members, by stating that “Oh, we all are stressed. You think you have a problem… the whole office is trying to deal with cuts. We all have big case loads.” (or something to this effect). Individuals who are stressed may be fully aware of some of the general causes of their stress. They may be fully aware that others about them are stressed, too. They may be fully aware that their office is short-staffed, or faces pay cuts. To be reminded of this is NOT helpful. It merely reminds them of their spiralling stress levels!

    The role of the Manager is to MANAGE – in the fullest sense of the word. This means getting to grips with staff problems. Being proactive. Being empathic. Providing a listening ear. Trying to work towards solutions. Managers are meant to have experience and expertise. This is what they are supposed to bring to bear upon their management responsibilities.

    The outcome of this survey suggests that some VERY disturbing things are happening in Social Care, some may be easier to “fix” than others…

    1. Working conditions are sometimes bordering on intolerable – hence stress. High case loads, uncertainty about roles, lack of supervision, short staffing, lack of resources… just some of the things that make for an “unhealthy” work environment. There is much that needs to be done to address this, some of it at Governmental level. Social Care needs to be made a more appealing profession to work in (good levels of pay, good working conditions, excellent opportunities and training), in order to secure more recruits. Issues such as clarity of roles, regular supervision, and so forth should be addressed by employers as a matter of course; the better they can make the working environment, the more likely they will recruit and retain good staff.

    2. More research needs to be carried out to look at what is going on within the profession of Social Worker (and to look at Social Care in general). We need to better understand how workers see themselves, and their issues. We need to better understand how the public sees Social Care, and views Social Care workers. We need to understand whether it is public opinion that affects recruitment, or whether it is the opinion of workers (or both). Is there a negative view of Social Care? Does this affect recruitment? Does it affect the workplace? Are there things that can be done to improve matters?

    3. Workers need to be more regularly polled – to gain opinions about such things as workplaces, working practices, working conditions. This provides invaluable insights into how workers feel, and what they undergo. It may enlighten us as to what is going on regarding such issues as staffing, morale, case loads, stress, etc. Information received can be used to make changes and improvements, and guide future learning. After all, the staff themselves are a good source of genuine insight – a mine of useful information.

    4. Managers are a HUGE problem. Quite simply, the outcome of this poll shows that lots of Managers are simply “not fit for purpose”. Managers NEED to be able to do the job of managing. If they are not up to a management role, the truth is, they should NOT be in one! It is about time that Managers took responsibility, stepped up, and became accountable. They NEED to demonstrate leadership ability, along with excellent people skills. They NEED to show proof of excellent knowledge, experience and qualifications. They NEED to be intelligent, articulate, proactive, diplomatic, empathetic, understanding, astute… In sum, Managers MUST be fit to occupy the role they have taken. It is high time that the Social Care professions did a FULL and THOROUGH evaluation of the role of Managers – as well as re-evaluating ALL Managers, themselves. It is high time that those Managers who are NOT fit for purpose were “put out to pasture”. Social Care needs to be well lead, and well managed. The role of Manager should NOT be filled by those who cannot manage. It is high time that Social Care management roles were changed, so that they can only ever be taken by staff FULLY QUALIFIED in Social Care (NOT ex-Bankers, or Accountants, HR or ex-Salespeople). It is also high time that ANYONE applying for a management role should be asked to demonstrate that they have TOP CLASS QUALIFICATIONS (i.e. they did academically and educationally better than their peers, and thus deserve to apply for a management role) and have RELEVANT EXPERIENCE ( they actually qualified and worked in Social Care, not that they worked as a Bank Manager, or Secretary in the HR Department). I have said this before… and I stand by it…

    I am NOT a qualified Architect, and know little to nothing about Architecture; therefore common-sense alone dictates that I would NEVER apply for the job of managing a team of Architects.

    The SAME should be the rule in SOCIAL CARE. Those who are neither qualified nor experienced in Social Care, should NEVER manage in the field of Social Care… and those Managers who are already in post, but who are NOT fit for purpose, should LEAVE.

    THAT would be a good start…

  2. BERNADETTE December 5, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Hi Elaine,
    a terrific feed back don’t think I could add more.