‘A burnt out social worker isn’t a good social worker. Employers must support under pressure staff’

Employers and social workers both have roles to play in promoting staff wellbeing, writes Daisy Bogg of The College of Social Work

Social workers in supervision
Credit: Rex Features, posed by models

By Daisy Bogg, practice adviser at The College of Social Work and AMHP

Social workers in mental health teams are under intense pressure. As Community Care reported last week, the latest annual NHS staff survey results show that we have overtaken other professions working in mental health in terms of the levels of stress being reported by frontline staff.

Lack of support, poor communication, a decrease in professional development and increasing levels of bullying and harassment are all cited in the survey as contributory factors. In this context our professional resilience is taking a pounding, with social workers finding themselves simply unable to cope with the demands they find themselves under.

So how can social workers support themselves and each other? How can organisations better support professional resilience in their social workers? These types of questions have been the focal point for two ‘Looking after yourself’ online debates run by The College of Social Work.

We ran our first debate in December last year and held a follow-up discussion last week. Both debates highlighted a dual responsibility for supporting staff wellbeing. While we can be more proactive and build ourselves strategies to cope with our stress and look after our own well-being, the issue also needs to be addressed systemically, with organisational cultures being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

There is no doubt that practice is a difficult place to be at the moment. Our Approved Mental Health Professional practice survey in 2013 and the subsequent work of Community Care and the BBC in highlighting the impact of cuts across the mental health system, left no doubt that AMHPs are often dealing with intolerable and plainly risky situations for all concerned. But the situation isn’t restricted to AMHP roles – it’s system wide and in this context it’s not surprising that stress levels are up for all mental health social workers.

Making the most of limited resources is important, but so is supporting your workforce. The employer standards were created for that very reason, in recognition that the workforce (in this case social workers but the same principles apply in other sectors) is the most important resource. Working people to the edge of burn out is counterproductive and has longer term financial and social costs.

Basic standards – like supervision being seen as essential rather than an additional time pressure and development time being supported – do make a huge difference to how people feel and how resilient they are.

Developing mentally healthy workplaces is not just about information, spotting the signs or doing something special to raise awareness of mental health issues. More importantly it is about providing good support, recognising and valuing people and their work (saying thank you for a job well done once in a while for example), and helping staff to develop a healthy work/life balance.

In my experience a burnt out social worker isn’t a good social worker. We and those that rely on us, deserve better.

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2 Responses to ‘A burnt out social worker isn’t a good social worker. Employers must support under pressure staff’

  1. Jim Greer March 11, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    We need to teach students on social work programmes to be able to understand and recognise burnout. We also need to teach good time management skills to help social workers to make the most of their time and teach the importance of a work/ life balance.
    For CPD we need to equip managers with tools such as lean management so that they can improve workplace efficiency and cut out frustrating and time wasting stages in admin procedures.
    A healthy workplace is one which recognises workers as human beings with lives outside of work while at the same time ensuring that people use their working hours efficiently and productively.

  2. Mike Bush March 11, 2014 at 5:52 pm #

    Excellent article I have been making the same points myself for years but this issue has been like the elephant in the room that no one has wanted to recognise however the tide now appears to be turning but we still along way to go on this. I suggested that the Looking After Ourselves Community of Interest be set up as developing professional and personal resilience in social work is incredibly important and historically has not been given like the attention that it clearly warrants. I hope that it will become a supportive interactive hub where people can post and share helpful resources. I have started the ball rolling with some useful online resources but for this to be successful people need to participate in it so please do that. I will be running a workshop on promoting well-being in the workplace at this years Community Care Live conference so hope to see people there.