What helps social workers feel less stressed?

Social workers cannot help people effectively if they are overwhelmed themselves, writes Gerry Nosowska

Picture: Kroszka (Flickr: creative commons licence)

By Gerry Nosowska, social worker and director of Effective Practice 

In the safety announcement on planes, you are asked to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others with theirs. Social workers cannot help people effectively if they are overwhelmed themselves.

I am really sad to see the results from the Community Care survey about the level of stress that social workers are experiencing. Each response that highlights stress is someone struggling and worrying, often feeling very alone.

In workshops that I do with social care practitioners and managers, people talk a lot about stress because of the amount of work they have to do, the complexity and unpredictability of the work, and the responsibility they feel. Here are some of the things that we discuss that might help you if you are stressed.


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Stress doesn’t come primarily from high levels of work. It comes from an imbalance between the demands placed on you and the level of control that you have. Stress is increased if work is unpredictable, allocated without discussion or people think you should be doing something that you don’t have the power to do. Stress can be reduced by having support.

There are three main things that you can do to help with stress: reduce demands, increase control and increase support.

Reducing demands

This can be difficult because often social workers don’t have much power over the organisational demands put on them. However, it is in your organisation’s interest to keep you well (aside from being the right thing to do) so you ought to be able to talk to your supervisor about prioritising your work.

Social workers say that they are told that everything is a priority. It can’t be. There are two questions to ask about each bit of work:

  • How important is this? (in terms of the impact on my clients if I don’t do it) and;
  • How urgent is this? (in terms of the impact on my clients if I don’t do it now)

Start with urgent and important things. If you are asked to do something else and you don’t have time, ask the person who is giving you the task how important and urgent it is. If it has to be top priority (most urgent and most important), then you may need to ask what you take off your list to make room for it.

You can manage demands better by having a clear plan of what to do in order of urgency and importance. Ideally, do the things that are most difficult at the times you are likely to feel more energetic. Try and build in some uninterrupted time and some time for unexpected crises.

Increasing control

Again, this can be difficult as social workers’ workload is usually controlled by someone else. You may be able to reduce some of the stress by having more certainty about your workload. For example by agreeing when you will have things allocated and agreeing what kind of case you will take next. Anything that makes your work more predictable will help you feel more in control.

There are two ways to increase personal control – the first is to increase resilience and the second is to only worry about things that are within your control.

Resilience skills can be learned – some people are naturally more resilient but you can practice behaviours that evidence shows help to build up your resilience. The main skills are: managing your emotions, not rushing to respond to events, identifying the cause of problems, having empathy for others, having confidence in your ability to solve problems, being prepared to try, and being optimistic. All of these are difficult in busy and demanding environments but you can practice: for example, stopping and thinking before acting when a crisis happens,or spending five minutes talking about things that are going well.

Another way to help feel more in control is to separate out the things that we can change and influence from the things that we can’t. Worrying about things we don’t have control over can make us feel more helpless, whereas acting to change what we can increases resilience. Take any problem, for example workload, and make three lists: what is in my control, what I can influence, what is outside my control. You may not be able to change the amount of work there is, but you have some control over your diary and you may be able to influence when you are allocated cases. Focus on doing the things that are in your control and influence, and try not to worry about what is outside of your control.

Increasing support

The support you have is something you can control and influence. The main support that helps social workers at work is their colleagues and manager. Social workers are also helped by family, friends and activities outside work. It can be difficult to ask for help, particularly if you are in an environment where this is not encouraged. However, telling people you are stressed and why is a good first step in feeling more supported.

Try and join up with others in your organisation to help each other and to ask for the support you need. You can use the Standards for Employers of social workers to help you see what support should be in place. Professional bodies like the College of Social Work help to highlight support needed across the profession.

All of this is easy to say and hard to do. It isn’t enough just to try to help individuals to cope, it is also necessary to improve the context for social workers. I will be striving to do this in my work and as a member of the College of Social Work.

Finally, it is important to be thanked for the hard work you do. I am really grateful that there are people who are doing this difficult work the best they can. Thank you.

Gerry Nosowska is a social worker and practice improvement specialist, and director of Effective Practice. This piece was originally published on the Effective Practice blog.

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