The number of mental health social workers suffering work-related stress has doubled in the past five years and is at its highest recorded level, official NHS figures show.
An analysis by Community Care of annual NHS staff survey findings shows that 56% of social workers in mental health trusts suffered work-related stress in 2013. The figure is the highest recorded stress level among social workers since the survey launched in 2003 and is more than double the 25% that reported suffering stress five years previously.
A comparison of stress levels among different professions working in mental health showed a broad increase in stress across the system over the past five years. However, frontline social workers overtook doctors, nurses and occupational therapists as the profession suffering most stress in mental health services. The percentage of social care managers reporting stress hit a record high of 53% in 2012 but fell to 45% in 2013.
The 2013 survey received responses from 281 social workers and 142 social care managers working in NHS mental health trusts.
Findings from the 2013 NHS Staff survey were published in recent weeks. We analysed responses from social workers in NHS mental health trusts over the five-year period 2008 to 2013. This found:
- The percentage of social workers witnessing ‘near miss’ serious incidents at work reached 34% in 2013, the highest over the five-year period.
- The rating of ‘work pressure’ felt by social workers also hit its highest level (3.42) in 2013.
- More than a quarter of social workers (26%) said they had been harassed or bullied by staff in 2013, the highest level over the five-year period.
- The percentage of social workers offered ‘job-relevant’ professional development hit 79% in 2013, the lowest score over the five-year period.
- The percentage of staff who said communication from senior management was good also fell to a five-year low of 24% in 2013.
- The rating of ‘support from immediate managers’ also fell to its lowest level (3.11) in 2013.
- Despite the increased pressures, job satisfaction remained relatively stable over the five-year period.
Social workers said the findings reflected the growing pressure on frontline staff at a time of rising demand for mental health care. Mental Health Act detentions hit a record high of 50,408 in 2012/13. In recent months Community Care investigations have revealed how mental health providers are facing real-terms budget cuts despite referrals rising.
Martin Webber, anniversary reader in social work at the University of York, said that the “unrelenting” and increasing workload faced by mental health social workers and Approved Mental Health Professionals (AMHPs) was taking its toll on the profession.
“It is not necessarily the AMHP work per se which is causing the stress – it is the knock-on effect of this on the other aspects of a social worker’s role in mental health services which is the problem. In the 2012 national AMHP survey we found levels of depression and anxiety in social workers correlated with unhappiness about their non-AMHP duties,” said Webber.
“The non-statutory social work roles are being increasingly squeezed out as social workers are being pressured to focus on crisis work. As I’ve spoken to practitioners up and down the country about this, there is a clear picture emerging that social work is increasingly being defined by its statutory functions in mental health services which is detrimental to the health and wellbeing of practitioners and service users alike.”
Faye Wilson, chair of the British Association of Social Workers’ mental health forum, said that cuts to services and welfare budgets were contributing to the pressure on staff working in mental health. Rising sickness rates due to work-related stress further upped the strain on teams, she said.
“Social workers are providing incredible support and expert interventions but these are difficult times. Staff are facing constant re-organisations, more and more are being asked to work during the day and be available on call in the evenings. There is also the stress of not being able to provide services for people in need because of cuts and facing the resultant distress and anger from service users,” she said.
Dean Royles, chief executive of NHS Employers, said that staff in mental health and learning disability trusts reported higher levels of job satisfaction on average than other areas of NHS care.
“They do inspiring work in what can be under-appreciated roles. Nevertheless, stress levels among some staff groups remain a concern, and although it is not always surprising – especially given the pressures and abuse they receive – it is something about which no employer is complacent,” he said.
“To start with, we know that to deliver high quality patient care, the NHS needs staff who are healthy, well and at work. We also know that where NHS organisations prioritise staff health and wellbeing, this has a positive impact on staff morale, loyalty, innovation, and productivity. So working to support employers to reduce stress among all staff groups is a major piece of ongoing work. This analysis will help provide additional focus and understanding.”
A Department of Health spokeswoman said employers had a duty to support staff at work.
“As part of our plan to improve mental health we highlighted the need for better information for all employers to help them spot the signs of stress and other mental health issues. We are also working with the NHS and other organisations to create mental health friendly work places to help staff across a range of professions manage stress and improve their wellbeing,” she said.
Are you impacted by stress in mental health social work? We are looking to gather examples of how staff are being impacted and what factors lie behind stress at the moment. Email us here.
Andy McNicoll is Community Care’s community editor