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%.