Social worker stress can be a symptom of organisational problems

Alex Chard examines why employers need a better approach to tackling social worker burnout

Photo: Rex/Visum

When staff in social care get significantly stressed the issue is often individualised- it’s seen that they are not coping when what organisations should also be doing is looking systemically at the stressors causing the stress. Looking at stress without considering the systemic causes won’t effectively address the issue.

Firstly, what are the most common causes of stress amongst social workers? Working with vulnerable people whose lives and families are troubled and sometimes troubling, where there is trauma, loss and perhaps physical or emotional abuse is intrinsically stressful.

Heavy emotional load

In addition there is the continual burden of trying to ensure that vulnerable people are provided with effective help and managing the risk they may pose including what might go wrong. This is the kind of responsibility that workers and managers in frontline services carry all-day, everyday and it is a heavy emotional load.

Staff often deal with tragic and sometimes horrific acts where stress can be transferred from traumatised service users. The result is often simply called burnout, not being recognised as unprocessed vicarious trauma caused by their work. Adding a heavy caseload together with limited reflective supervision creates a formula for increased stress and trauma.

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Working in children’s services as a systemic consultant, two of the greatest stressors that I encounter are the fear and actuality of failed inspections and of child tragedies. When I meet with staff and managers in such circumstances the anxiety which has been created, is often intense.

The emotional and physical impact of such events not only stresses individuals and teams but also creates a rippling effect through the entire organisation. In both inspections and inquiries there is the risk of reputational loss, for individuals and the organisation and often fear of loss of livelihoods.

So the stress on individuals in these cases is recognisable, but the cause is surely systemic? It emanates from the limitations of inspection regimes and the way we conduct inquiries into tragedies and then how organisations, the media, politicians and the public respond.

Villification of individuals

While there have been some shifts in how both inquiries and inspections are conducted, all too often the broader responses remain linear with an over-simplified understanding of complex causes, attribution of blame and the villification of individual social workers and managers.

A fear of being seen to have failed frequently creates defensive responses (fight or flight) in individuals and organisations and this is primary stress. It blocks learning leading to a failure to respond effectively, which in turn leads to a loss of morale and further stress. Staff then leave the organisation, creating even more stress for those who remain in a vicious downward spiral.Responding effectively to such scenarios can be very difficult but the results of such failures are manifest in the number of authorities who are currently in difficulty.

I consistently notice that staff in high performing services are usually less stressed than those in struggling services. Yet they face the same stressors when it comes to the direct work with families. When I speak with staff in such services they report being held to account but also of being effectively supported.

This is backed up by Ofsted in their 2012 report on High Expectations High Support and High Challenge:

In this survey inspectors found that the most effective authorities take a systemic and holistic approach to supporting social workers, recognising that the components of effective support are interdependent and that the most effective support is provided when they are all aligned.

Good leaders and the duty of care

In addition good leaders are resilient – they process and manage their own stress well (or at least manage to give that appearance) and this in turn helps to model and protect staff from organisational stress.

A fundamental of any learning organisation is ensuring that senior leaders understand and respond to what is happening at the front-line. An individually located, problem-focused response (where the worker is seen to be not coping) fails to acknowledge the organisational causes and responsibility for stress.

Organisations have a duty of care to their staff and this includes their emotional well-being. However, failing to recognise the systemic nature of organisational stress and deal with this effectively is not only detrimental to individuals but also to the organisation’s effectiveness – including the cost effective use of its budgets and the ability to deliver improved services.

If stress is organisationally created and highly debilitating, then why are some organisations failing to acknowledge this? Responding systemically to stress needs to be high on the list of organisational priorities, especially in turbulent, austere and challenging times.

Alex Chard is an independent consultant specialising in systemic practice.

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2 Responses to Social worker stress can be a symptom of organisational problems

  1. Emeka everest January 27, 2015 at 10:48 pm #

    this is interesting.i love social work.

  2. Michelle Henderson January 30, 2015 at 10:06 am #

    Increasingly I wonder about ways to relieve the burden on the system. The UK has a legalistic culture – it relies on watchdog after watchdog to improve practise. I think the Independant Reviewing Officer role is largely unhelpful – few are skilled or insightful and others sustain a brutish policing and show a deadened appreciation of systemic issues. If truth be told none of them would want a social workers role. Why not let managers manage and have their practices rather than social workers reviewed or perhaps peer reviewed. I don’t believe there is research evidence that the cost of IROs or the improvements to a child or young person’s life has come from IRO review ? Indeed I suspect the strain and workload these IROs place on the system detracts from good practice. Scrutinise management but not over burdened and increasingly extinct social workers