How do good social work managers promote staff wellbeing?

Louise Grant and Gail Kinman unpick the knowledge, skills and attributes that managers need to develop resilient practitioners

Photo: Darren Greenwood/Rex

By Louise Grant, principal lecturer in social work and Gail Kinman professor of occupational health psychology, both at University of Bedfordshire

It is widely recognised that social work is an emotionally demanding and potentially stressful profession. Several studies have highlighted how important emotional resilience is to protect social workers’ wellbeing and enable high quality professional practice. Research we conducted identified a range of factors that underpin resilience – emotional literacy, appropriate empathy, social competence and support, and flexible coping skills are especially key.

Although social workers need to be emotionally resilient, it is vital to be clear that the responsibility for protecting wellbeing does not lie solely with the individual. Social work managers, employers and organisations play a crucial role.

Protective cultures

We are currently conducting research to identify the policies, structures and support systems that can protect the wellbeing of social workers and help them practise effectively and sustainably.

Line managers are particularly important in this. There is evidence that  managers’ characteristics such as leadership style, support, consideration and empowerment strongly influence the wellbeing and performance of their staff and impact on absenteeism and retention.

The Health and Safety Executive (in association with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and Investors in People) have developed a framework to identify management behaviours that are effective in preventing and reducing stress at work.

This approach has great potential to help organisations manage stress proactively – it could inform the selection and development of managers and target their training.

Stressors specific to social work

While this is a useful starting point, much of the stress experienced by social workers is directly related to the type of work they do. Therefore we are looking at the specific knowledge, skills and attributes that protect wellbeing in this context. We have conducted some preliminary research and a larger-scale study is underway. Our initial findings suggest that the following qualities are particularly important:

Social work managers should have knowledge of:

  • the ways in which work-related stress can impact on employees (e.g. physical and mental health, personal life, health behaviours such as excessive alcohol consumption, and job performance);
  • the emotional demands inherent in social work and how they can threaten wellbeing;
  • how reflective supervision can enable staff to process the complex emotional demands that they will experience;
  • the importance of adequate respite and recovery time to maintain wellbeing and optimum job performance over the long-term;
  • individual differences in needs, practices and challenges amongst their team members;
  • relevant policies and procedures to help employees manage stress (reactively) and build resilience (proactively);
  • the availability of support and training opportunities for individuals and teamsl;
  • the importance of peer support.

Managers should have skills such as the ability to:

  • develop a culture where open discussion about the emotional demands of the work is normalised and facilitated;
  • identify signs of stress in their staff at an early stage and monitor them accordingly;
  • champion the benefits of resilience for all stakeholders;
  • take responsibility, but empower staff to make sustainable changes;
  • recognise individual needs and strengths and how they can change over time;
  • work with employees to identify adjustments to work that might reduce the stressful nature of their job and improve their wellbeing;
  • role model self-care and flexibility;
  • recognise their own limitations;

Managers should have the following attributes:

  • approachability;
  • emotional literacy, self awareness and well developed reflective skills;
  • appropriate empathy (not lacking in compassion or being over-involved);
  • optimism, but not unrealistically so;
  • self-confidence to facilitate change;
  • forward thinking: anticipating internal and external changes that may impact on the wellbeing of staff;
  • creativity in shaping solutions.

Our preliminary findings also suggest that this ‘traditional’ framework of knowledge, skills and attributes should be supplemented by values. Compassion, integrity, authenticity and a strong sense of equity have all been proposed as key factors that can help social work managers protect the wellbeing of their staff.

Particularly important is a recognition of the fact that a strong commitment to social work values can threaten self-care and wellbeing, for example if social workers feel compelled to continue to work when they are unwell.

Want to find out more about emotional resilience?
Community Care Inform subscribers can read more about how individuals can develop emotional resilience. For a limited time, this guide is also available free to download for non-subscribers.
Louise Grant and Gail Kinman have also edited Developing Resilience for Social Work Practice (Palgrave, 2014).

Support for managers?

Although line managers are a powerful resource to help employees protect their wellbeing, they also need support. To be effective, managers should “put on their own oxygen masks” before attempting to help others and not neglect their personal self care.

This may be a challenge under current working conditions. Many line managers are  juggling scarce resources while also needing to maintain safe service levels. Their organisational culture may also stigmatise stress and help-seeking, encourage long working hours and “presenteeism”, and fail to acknowledge the adverse impact on wellbeing, work-life balance and job performance over the longer term.

Help us find out more

More work is needed to understand the factors that help social work managers protect the wellbeing of their staff. We plan to run several focus groups and conduct individual interviews with social workers and managers to gain more insight into the knowledge, skills, attributes and values required

Specific incidents where wellbeing was enhanced or reduced by management behaviours will also be explored. The information gained will then be refined into a competency framework which will then be validated by an online survey of social workers.

We anticipate that the findings of our research will help social workers and managers build a culture of emotional resilience and provide an optimum service, delivering excellent social work practice.

This is where we need your help. If you are a social worker or a line manager, or indeed a senior manager, we are keen to get your input in this important research. If you are interested in participating please contact, Louise Grant at Louise.grant@beds.ac.uk or Gail Kinman gail.kinman@beds.ac.uk.

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