Social workers too stressed to do their job according to survey

A Community Care survey of more than 2,000 social workers finds workplace support for stress is lacking

stress
Photo: REX/WestEnd61

At least 80% of social workers believe stress levels are affecting their ability to do their job, a Community Care survey of more than 2,000 frontline staff and managers has shown.

The survey, which has had the biggest response rate of any undertaken by Community Care, found a third of social workers responding to the survey are using alcohol and 17% are using prescription drugs such as anti-depressants to cope with stress. Almost all respondents (97%) said they were moderately or very stressed, yet only 16% said they had received any training or guidance on how to deal with work-related stress, and less than a third had been offered access to workplace counselling.

Staggering

Sue Kent, British Association of Social Workers professional officer said this figure was “staggering”.

“Until stress is acknowledged and employers find methods to deal with this, the situation is unlikely to change,” she said.

“Why do we not have automatic opportunities for counselling and support for all social workers, like other professions? And how can we accept that in our people-focused profession it is still taboo to talk about stress within the workplace?”

The most common reason given for stress was heavy and increasingly complex caseloads, followed by a fear that something will go wrong and bullying by colleagues or managers.

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Not sleeping

One social worker responding to the online survey said: “I am stressed to the point of not sleeping. I experience constant anxiety and I’m fearful about both the situation of very vulnerable service users in the future and my own future if I am unable to continue in a profession I have worked in for well over 20 years.”

A children’s social worker with over 15 years’ experience said not receiving adequate support after a child death had impacted their confidence and ability, to the point that they became physically unwell and had to leave their post.

Everything is a priority

Another social worker added: “ Sometimes I get so overwhelmed by my to do list I feel like crying because everything is a priority and it’s impossible to deal with it all.”

Alan Wood, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) said the Department for Education and local authorities were looking together  at what support social workers needed, however the results of Community Care’s annual survey have shown little has changed year on year.

Almost 80% of social workers are thinking of leaving their jobs and two thirds are considering leaving the profession altogether because of stress- both figures have increased since last year’s survey.

Wood said: “All local authorities need to heed the message from this survey because social workers deserve support and individual guidance in challenging situations, from managers and the teams they work with.”

Unsustainable

Annie Hudson, chief executive of The College of Social Work said employers needed to invest in a range of strategies, including effective supervision and proper time and space for workers to reflect on their practice.

“Too often, people are moving straight from one extremely complex case to another with no time to process their thoughts, and with an ever increasing workload piling up,” Hudson said.

“Such situations are not sustainable.”

Other findings

• Half said they felt they couldn’t talk to their managers about being stressed
• Almost half (47%) said stress was not discussed openly in the workplace
• 37% of social workers whose managers were aware of their stress said they had done nothing to help
• 13% said they had made it worse
• 41% said just the fact they had listened helped

More from Community Care

9 Responses to Social workers too stressed to do their job according to survey

  1. Imelda Hall January 7, 2015 at 3:37 pm #

    It is not just a case of employers creating strategies for appropriate supervision and time for swkrs to reflect. Even when providing good supervision, employers cannot stop the workflow and more cases coming through the door. This problem is 100% the fault of our successive governments. This current government make regular and unbelievable cuts to all vital public services and then expect LA’s to deliver top notch services. I agree with Alan that strategies do need to be developed but I would start with appropriate inductions where you have access to the database before you are allocated full case loads, the legacy of which, can remain with you for 12 months. However, lets start by getting our government in on the act. We need a serious injection of money to put bums on seats. The turnover and long-term sickness of soc wkrs due to stress is excessive, which also puts an unmanagable amount of pressure on managers and on LA services. If this situation is ever to resolve itself then give us the tools that would enable us to do a good job. That in itself would help reduce the stress and burnout.

    • Ian Kemp January 9, 2015 at 10:51 am #

      Yes I agree It is a complex problem. I am not sure that Local authorities are able to offer appropriate support . They are far to bureaucratic .
      Unfortunately, there is a huge bureaucracy which costs a lot and only delivers a marginal service .Solutions are not easy in the prevailing climate of cuts and austerity .
      It needs innovative thinking, For example airline’s recognised many years ago That flying a aircraft was a team effort. They recognised that humans will make errors particularly when under stress so they devised a check system so that everybody as checking that what the other had done. The result was that pilot error declined rapidly .
      In social work particularly in children and family work there needs to be approach particularly with difficult cases here the team manages the case together each checking and supporting each other. Systems would need to be designed which could facilitate this . It is not beyond the wit of people who design and create bureaucratic systems to do this .
      However it was implemented, it would create a much more supportive environment then any bureaucratic systems.

  2. Edna January 7, 2015 at 10:02 pm #

    In my view it is the workplace and the environment of bullying, undermining and devaluing the workers aggravate the stress level – this has not to do with money but it is the culture of the work environment that can become so hostile that it becomes impossible to work.
    Everyone is trying to their cover their backs and the blame culture is rife within the department further add to the stress.

    • Chris January 8, 2015 at 12:24 pm #

      I absolutely agree with this comment. Over the last five years the work environment has become almost toxic. I have no problem with being accountable for my work and actions. However a blame culture appears to have developed at the same time as support and autonomy has been withdrawn.
      For instance there is an expectation that we will work on when it is required, but then have to apply to take even an hours toil so that it is almost impossible to take time back.

    • Ian Kemp January 9, 2015 at 11:05 am #

      I agree I have worked in all areas of social work from social worker to team manager for now over 43 years .
      In the last 15 years I have seen a rapid decline in moral among social workers .The systems that Local authority has created are a bureaucratic nightmare. The increasing number of forms and bureaucratic procedures that take hours to put on the system result in a climate of protecting ones back by whatever means possible . The decline of the union in being able to protect often very decent social workers from bullying and the blame culture that the local authority has itself created has been significant over the last 10 years . It means that the job has become increasingly unsatisfying and demoralising.

  3. Julie January 8, 2015 at 10:05 am #

    The stress is caused by the increasing amount of reports and repetitive forms that need to be completed. Court timescales also add to stress 26 weeks is good for the children but not for the social worker who has to fit it numerous assessments, court reports and local authority procedures. This is normally on top of an already heavy case-load. Working with the children and parents is the easy bit it is the bureaucracy and red tape which is the problem. Every governments has continued following serious case reviews to increase the pressure on social workers what they don’t understand the higher the pressure is the more likely you are going to struggle to identify the children at most risk and prioritise.
    Also other professionals expect the social workers to have a magic wand one which we clearly do not have. I love my job but we need help now.

  4. Ruth Cartwright January 8, 2015 at 5:27 pm #

    It is hard but we have to practice defensively. We may not be able to resist the pressure to take on more work (often we are told if we don’t do it someone else will have to or the person will be unhelped), but we need to be clear and professional in our recording and in supervision about the impact on our wellbeing and other cases on our caseload and warn of the consequences for the service user and for the department of not being able to provide the level of service required. Of course, our ability will be questioned and we may even be threatened with capability proceedings but if enough of us do it, notice will have to be taken. Lack of funding and bad funding decisions at local and governmental levels are behind all this as well as a bullying culture in many areas. Attention is now being drawn to the effect on the NHS of the cuts to social care for older people and this may help. Look on the Health and Safety Exec website for info on stress – teams can ask for a stress audit from their employer – I did this once and our employers were shocked and had to acknowledge the amount of stress there was.

  5. Andy West January 8, 2015 at 5:43 pm #

    I retired earlier last year after working for the same authority for 37 years. Social work has always been stressful and there is no getting away from that. However over the period of my social work career the profession has become increasingly more maligned. The consequence has been that without really addressing the resource implications of changes in practice (which in many ways have been dictated by the requirements of accountability, technology and the intrusion of politicians and the media into areas they have no practical experience of) the requirements and expectations of social workers have slowly increased.

    I have had quite a unique experience as I have worked for the same authority through all these changes and have seen how these have impacted in one authority. I have always been someone who has tried to contribute to the development of my own authority and have copies of papers and reports I wrote going back to the mid 1990’s that chart the increasing stress levels in the profession in my agency, the growth in bureaucracy, the effects of the impact of technology and the implications of this for recruitment and retention.

    This was somewhat ameliorated through the days of the labour government as more money was given to agencies with the consequent growth in staffing levels. Clearly this has all changed since the advent of the coalition government.

    How cuts have affected the ability of social workers to do their jobs impacts in many ways that are not all obvious. For instance the conditions of work which, in my authority, meant staff being crammed into increasingly smaller spaces with a reduction in “defensible space” and the opportunities for quiet reflection.

    The sadness is that as someone who had read widely, was knowledgeable about social work and had ongoing experience of this I was almost completely ignored over the many years I reported on the difficulties of working in the agency environment. I suspect that I was ignored because the issue of addressing resource implications was seen as a non starter. (and I was a pain for keeping on raising it.)

    Social Care has always been on the back foot and the increasing vitriol that accompanied perceived agency failings-Baby P and more recently the Rotherham case are examples- has just further alienated social care as a profession. Social care badly needs some leaders with political nouse who are prepared to speak the truth about what can be expected by the public, the media and politicians of the profession and what the resource implications are if those expectations are to be fulfilled.

    I was fortunate in being able to join a fostering team and leave front line work after 27 years. For me the stress levels immediately reduced. I was not alone. In my authority it was in my team and teams like adoption where experienced social workers who had worked for many years for the agency were to be found. However in the end I decided to take early retirement as I was fed up with being ignored and therefore feeling that my knowledge and experience were being wasted.

    I continue to keep up with the social care press. I have seen that some “experts” consider 2015 will be a significant year for social care, that things are on the up. I would only comment that a common feature of many child death inquiries has been that social workers have been too optimistic about the families they work with. For a long time I have considered that this same “rule of optimism” can also be applied to those who are leaders in the social care profession who continue to state that there can be improvements without the resource issue being confronted or to have a realistic discussion about what it is possible for social care to achieve.

    This survey does not surprise me but I am confident that if Community Care were to go back in its archives it would find similar views being expressed by social workers going back years. Yet this continues to remain unaddressed. It is very sad.

    • Ian Kemp January 9, 2015 at 11:32 am #

      I agree with all you say Andy. It was my experience in over 43 years at the coal face. Unlike you I moved round a lot. After taking early retirement have worked for a long time for many different local authorities in all positions from T.M to Social worker. I left children / families some time ago never to go back to what I felt was a toxic environment and have worked mainly in mental health.
      To be honest I do not know what the answer is except to say that the bureaucratic approach of local authority has not helped … There is so much paper work and sticking stuff onto computers that the system requires that the actual contact with clients has declined massively compared with when I started as a psychology graduate all those years ago. with it work satisfaction is so much less and the stress of all the bureaucratic deadlines and paper work has increased .
      There are solutions. But they would be very radical and it would mean that social worked more independently of local authority and were more focused on clients providing appropriate care and support. Funding would of course be a issue, but I am sure there would be ways and means if there was a will. Unfortunately the politicians will not touch it with a barge pole, because it would cost a lot initially, but in the long run would be more cost effective and professional then the present organisation .