Social workers need to be backed, not left to burn out

    If burnout’s a common outcome of the conditions we work in, why isn’t it treated as an industrial injury, asks Social Work Tutor

    burnout
    Photo: Markus Mainka/fotolia

    ‘Burnout’. It’s a term so common within social work these days that you can hardly go a day without hearing it.

    First coined by Herbert J. Freudenberger in his 1974 paper ‘Staff Burn-Out’, it describes a feeling of exhaustion, a lack of motivation and enthusiasm, and increased mental duress within the workplace.

    While any worker may be prone to burnout, it is known to be a particularly common issue amongst health and social care professionals due to the emotional demands of being responsible for the welfare of others and the high-stress nature of working in environments where you are potentially responsible for life or death decisions.

    ‘Sink or swim’

    In my first day on the job as a qualified social worker I was chatting to a social work assistant. I thought I’d be honest by sharing the nerves I had about being a fully-fledged professional responsible for my own caseload. Without batting an eyelid, he told me that “it’s sink or swim around here, only the strong survive”.

    What I took initially as a lighthearted comment, I later found out to be all too accurate. Within months, I was dealing with child protection cases by myself. I was working until 7pm every evening and holding a caseload of 30.

    Whether it was luck, my nature or some innate emotional resilience, I ‘swam’ but many of my fellow newly qualified social workers weren’t as lucky. A third of those in my area ended up breaking down and having to leave the profession within months of qualifying.

    This was despite us having a really good manager. Within the constraints the system imposed on her, she did everything in her powers to help us. It’s just that the structural restraints, high caseloads and problems recruiting experienced staff meant work was allocated to social workers who weren’t yet equipped to handle the responsibility.

    As I’ve learned more about our profession and connected with many people from across the world I’ve learned that this issue runs like a seam through the heart of social work. It’s borne out in the statistics that 20% of children’s social work posts remain vacant and half of the workforce has less than five years’ experience.

    Common stress factors

    In the past few years I’ve been contacted by hundreds of social workers who have shared their stories of workplace stress with me. The common contributing factors are excessive workloads, long hours (often forced by unpaid overtime), constant change and uncertainty within the workplace, a lack of adequate support, poor supervision and a negative public image of the profession.

    Brooding on this issue for lengthy periods at a time after reading each email or letter from my burnt out comrades, I find myself returning to the same question time after time – If burnout is such a commonly accepted outcome of the work we do and the conditions we do it in, then why isn’t it treated as an industrial injury?

    The Oxford Dictionary defines an industrial injury as: an injury occurring in the course of one’s employment

    Considering this in the context of workplaces that continually flaunt the safe recommended caseload of 20 and the knowledge that high caseloads are an issue in almost all below-par authorities, I am genuinely surprised that our unions have not yet brought a case forward on behalf of the many thousands of people who have been forced to leave their jobs because of burnout.

    The case for such action seems even more compelling when considered alongside the news that the only councils to receive ‘outstanding’ grades for their children’s services did so on the back of low caseloads and a stable workforce.

    With a weight of evidence from academics, BASW, our unions, Munro, Ofsted and the voices of those working on the frontline, all showing that high caseloads lead to burnout, it is surely a neglect of duty for employers to expect their workers to operate in such conditions and to foresee effective outcomes for service users arising in such an environment?

    Eckhart Tolle tells us that “stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’” With that in mind, burnout isn’t caused because workers aren’t capable of doing the job expected of them. Instead, it’s because they can see how much better they could be if only their employer would help them get there.

    Now is the time for employers to help us get to where we want to be, give us an environment we can thrive in and afford social workers with the tools they need to make a difference.

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    23 Responses to Social workers need to be backed, not left to burn out

    1. Rachel July 28, 2016 at 9:57 pm #

      Hear hear @SocialWorkTutor burnout is very common throughout our profession….professionals are trying their best to achieve positive outcomes, yet struggle to achieve this in an environment where case loads are high, working hours are routinely excessive and dealing with other people’s emotional distress. In turn, this only serves to impact upon our personal lives with friends and family witnessing our drive and commitment to the role diminishing and instead us becoming demoralized and exhausted.

    2. ednac cloud July 28, 2016 at 10:47 pm #

      I crashed in April and went to my gp, after years of working a 60+ hour week. My day started early and ended late; I had no life outside work, as I was always too tired. I faced and difficult conflict with another professional which I and devised them that in my opinion it was bullying and devised nd the behavior was repeated on a further 2 occasions so I spoke with their manager. However, since that time, my confidence was knocked, I was not sleeping, I was wandering the house and changing beds or doing housework at 3 in the morning, I was constantly tearful and this was out of character. I am an experienced social worker, supported students and newly qualified staff, had students in placement and thought I was really robust and resilient. WRONG!!! I went to my gp and he wanted to sign me off there and then, but this made my anxiety even worse as I had cases in court; final evidence and initial statements to write, plus an annexe A for final adoption hearing and I could NOT let these families down. I completed these pieces of work, spoke to my manager, sent and min through my diary commitments for the next month and got my gp to sign me off, for a month, ha, yeah right!!! That first month passed in a blur, still wandering the house at all hours, not getting up, I did resort to alcohol to try and help me sleep, but it made me more down, plus I could easily have drunk from the time I got up to the time I went to bed and I didn’t want to go down that route, ever. I saw occupational health and I made them cry when explaining how difficult the job was and hours worked!! Could only happen to me. I should have been referred for counselling but this didn’t happen, for whatever reason. The counsellor I was eventually referred to offered some very inappropriate advice and, had I not been a reflective practitioner and perhaps a service user, if I had acted on the advice when I was extremely vulnerable, I dread to think what could have happened!! Anyway, I have just completed month 3 of my only sick leave for the last 20 years, yes in 20 years I have had no days off sick. I am not a martyr, but I can guarantee weekends and time off will inevitably bring a sore throat, sickness,flu, which has usually cleared when time to go back to work. I absolutely love my job, child protecting and court is what I am good at and I know this from feedback from service users, solicitors and other professionals, so I will go back. However, this will be when I am fully recovered, when I am sleeping better, when my motivation to go out -walking or meeting friends without feeling sick or needing to take anxiety/anti – sickness tablets before I do. My advice, if I can make it clear, especially to newly qualified staff, do not think you have something to prove and take on more than you should; make time for friends and family; make time for yourself to do simple things like a walk or gardening – mine is like a jungle because of lack of time or motivation! I do agree that this is an industrial injury and should be addressed as such, compensation perhaps?? I have become a shell of my former, bubbly, confident, jolly, supportive, stoical self and I worry I will not get back to how I used to be!

      • Debbie July 29, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

        I have just read this reply and it has made me cry. This is the first time I have been able to show any emotion for a long time, you see, everything that was written is me at the moment. I thought I was the only one and struggling to say what is happening to me. I to am on sick leave from work as a social worker. I’m on my 7th week.
        I do not work in children and family services I work in adult services and we have exactly the same issues, and it frustrates me that it is always seen as an issue for workers in childrens services. Our case loads are 50+. I was managing very very complex mental and physical health cases. I was working long hours. I had to ask for supervision, and when did get it, I explained I was at breaking point and could not take anymore work, and wanted this recorded in supervision, guess what I was handed more cases with the comments, ‘these need an experienced practitioner’. I was supervising 6 social workers through PQ and undertaing their direct observations of practice, so my weekends are continually taken up with writing these up, as time is not given to e during office hours, as ‘service comes first’. We have had risk of redundancy notices hanging over us for 6 months.
        Driving to work in morning I was have anxiety attacks and did not realise. When I went to the GP, she told me I was not to go into work and signed me off for 4 weeks, and was prescribed antidepressants. My conscience would not allow me to go home and I went into work, completed all paperwork and made sure there were notes on all cases indicating where I was going with them. Wasn’t until I had done this that I felt I could put the sick note in. Now I am struggling to leave my home, the thought of going out leaves me in a state of anxiety. When I have gone out I have to drive down the road that takes me to work and due to the anxiety this has bought me, I have to turn back and go home.
        I can’t think of one worker who has not had to take off with stress. But managers do nothing. The union is absolutely useless. One of my colleagues was told by senior manager if don’t like job leave! This seems to be the prevailing thought from managers. Especially as the organisation I work for has massive budget deficits to address and many are being made redundant. This is being used as a stick to beat us with.
        To read – ednac cloud’s post was like reading about myself word for word and the overwhelming sense that I’m not the only one was immense, as I am in a cycle of blaming myself and feeling a failure. Thank you for sharing the posts.

        • Sue July 29, 2016 at 9:06 pm #

          Dear Debbie Thank you so much for putting your experience to this article and for speaking up for adult social care, I too am a social worker and have been working in adult social care for 14 years and have many a time felt like packing up and leave but then I feel why should I be beaten it giving in when I worked so hard, like many of us to be I a career that we feel makes a difference to the most vulnerable. We have after four years had major changes yet again form moving away from specialised teams to having any case from mental health, dementia, learning disability, physical disabilities and transition care. I too have had burnout twice in my working career, mainly due to the work nature and that we all too have to manage our balance in personal life, I’ve been diagnosed with a depressive illness which I work hard not to become ill but it’s so hard. I really hope you get well soon ,a well wisher

      • Patricia August 3, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

        I fell sick with serious stomach infection which I suspect I picked up at work due to the filthy conditions in an over subscribed kitchen where nobody seems to have the time or motivation to clean . . After 3 weeks and 3 lots of antibiotics I feel wiped out and have been signed off for a further couple of weeks . .I think my immune system is down from all the stress. . I am determined to get well but don’t want to go back until I am feeling better. . I feel guilty that I am letting people down and it’s depressing me.

      • Kyle August 25, 2016 at 8:30 pm #

        Hi ednac just read your story I don’t know who u are or where you have worked but reading your story really struck me I’m Newly qualified within children and families I’m super super excited but wanted to take the time as a person and as a newly qualified to thank you for your years of service, you should be proud of what you have achieved, to take on people’s problems to support people in their darkest hour and be someone who is willing to protect society’s most vulnerable is no easy task I truly hope I’m half the social worker that to me you seem to be. Hold your head high and I hope you come through your adversity. Per ardua my friend;

    3. Tom J July 29, 2016 at 10:21 am #

      ednac cloud – thank you for sharing your story. In supporting children and families many workers lose sight of themselves.

      Much more should be done to support the emotional wellbeing of all workers. I am in favour of workers having regular access to reflective meetings that are solely focused on worker wellbeing.

      My authority often does the opposite of support- by taking social workers to a formal capability meeting with threat of dismissal in the letter- the second a social worker goes off for too long.

      I would encourage social workers to join their trade union and get worker wellbeing on the agenda. When senior management are met the question should be asked ‘what is currently being done to promote the emotional resilience of social workers?’- and ‘here are our suggestions’ Culturally it is the case that too often social workers are viewed as weak etc if they find what they are doing to be stressful. Just as soldiers need help after experiencing conflict, a social worker who for example goes to court to remove a child from a parent- will also need emotional support as what they are doing is more than just a process.

    4. Tom July 29, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

      I honestly believe that the only way mental health providers i.e. social workers, LCPC, MFT’S or anyone else I missed will ever get paid (reimbursed) a fair wage for the work they do will be when we all unite together & strike. That was the only way Nurses gained fair wages & protections. I have seen to often the differnt professionals pitting against each other instead of actually unifying & demanding change. I guarantee our Congress would listen if they new those who have mental health challenges were not getting any treatment.

    5. Ruth Cartwright July 29, 2016 at 3:43 pm #

      Thing is ‘burnout’ is not a specific illness and nor really is ‘stress.’ We are usually talking about depression here but my experience is that it is difficult for social workers to admit they are clinically depressed because it is seen as a sign of inadequacy, of not being strong and resilient enough, even though no human being on earth could cope with the pressure. There was a social worker from Nottingham some years ago who sued – he went off sick because of impossible working conditions, returned and was placed in an even more difficult situation. He was off sick again and could not envisage returning. I think he won his case and compensation from his local authority employer. In a long career in social work I had very little time off (well, none) apart from two episodes of work-related depression. The second time I had good work-place counselling and support from Occupational Health. Each time the solution for me was to change my job.

      I am a little wary of resilience training – it could be another stick to beat us with and to conceal the fact that often our workplace conditions and the work we are expected to do are completely untenable and they need to be changed, not us.

      • Ellie August 3, 2016 at 9:12 pm #

        Dear Ruth,

        Much as I agree that “burnout” and “stress” are not specific illnesses, I believe that we should be cautious in applying the labels of “depression” or “clinical depression” to what Social Workers are experiencing.

        I say this because much, if not all, of what many Social Workers end up citing as the reason they go off sick, or indeed quit work altogether, COULD BE AVOIDED. For something that starts off as something which could be resolved to reach the point where it may be termed “depression”, we are talking generally about protracted periods of time. Most Social Workers DO NOT just experience one brief problem and then rush to go off sick. The reason they END UP off sick, or even leaving their jobs, is because the UNTENABLE AND INTOLERABLE WORKING CONDITIONS THEY FACED WENT ON AND ON WITHOUT RESOLUTION.

        In such cases, I firmly believe that it IS INCORRECT to label workers with “depression”. They are NOT depressed – what they are suffering is actually more akin to POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER, and should be recognized as such.

        Low mood generally becomes recognized as depression when the feelings will not go away, but instead come back over and over again to interfere with life. However, in cases of depression, the original trigger event is often long past. There is no repeated exposure to the trigger for feeling low – the person just continues to feel low. By contrast, what many Social Workers who are described as facing “burnout” encounter is NOT just one unpleasant trigger event, but rather intolerable working conditions, sometimes including bullying, that go on and on, day after day after day. The Social Worker in question CANNOT escape the trigger for their low mood, because this trigger IS THEIR OWN WORKPLACE AND WORKING CONDITIONS. The only way to escape what triggers their low mood is either to complain about poor working conditions – and many staff (including myself) do this, only to get bullied for speaking out. Or else, they leave the job.

        Social Workers should NOT face criticism – or, indeed, charges of “being depressed” – when actually what they are truly suffering from is intolerable working conditions. This is why I compare the situation more to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

        PTSD is a disorder caused by exposure to very traumatic, stressful or frightening events. It can be triggered by a one-off event. However, it can also be triggered by repeated exposure – which is very similar to Social Workers being repeatedly exposed to intolerable working conditions. PTSD can be triggered by witnessing or dealing with violence; by witnessing or dealing with death; by dealing with or coming into contact with criminal activity; by exposure to violent or upsetting scenes such as Domestic Abuse or substance misuse; by exposure to poverty, or to natural disasters like famines or floods. Interestingly, Social Workers may, in the course of their daily work, be exposed to MANY things that can cause PTSD, including –

        Work with Domestic Violence and abuse victims
        Work with criminals
        Having to give representations in court
        Natural disaster victims
        Work with drug addicts, and alcoholics
        Work with terminally ill people like HIV and cancer victims
        Death
        Divorce
        Fostering and adoption – including having to forcibly remove kids from abusers
        Bullying at work
        Intolerable working conditions – such as short staffing, excess caseloads, “hotdesking”

        We know that other people who work in jobs where exposure to stress may trigger PTSD can get help for this – the Armed Forces and Police receive much more assistance to help them cope with the fact that they do stressful and at times upsetting jobs than Social Workers get. It seems that there is little real recognition of just what kind of situations Social Workers work in – and just what sort of situations their service-users are in.

        If we recognise that a person’s job regularly means coming into contact with poverty, criminality, death, disease, abuse, mental illness, learning disability, physical disability, alcoholism, drug misuse… AND also involves carrying a big caseload, with complex cases, but facing budgetary, resource and time constraints… Then surely it makes sense to do EVERYTHING possible to ensure that such a person remains able – both emotionally and physically – to do the job. And this DOES NOT include labelling them as “failures”, “stressed”, “burned out” or “depressed” – there should be NO negative connotations whatsoever. Instead, there should be a frank and honest recognition that people who daily do a job that COULD, if the right support is not given, induce PTSD deserve support. They deserve regular supervision, competent and supportive management, decent levels of funding and resources, good training, thoughtful mentoring and the opportunity to receive peer support, and the chance to de-brief in a caring and supportive environment when things get hectic!

        • Debbie August 8, 2016 at 2:56 pm #

          Thank you Ellie for your reasoning above about ‘stress’ ‘depression’ and ‘post traumatic distress’.

          When reading your response I had a light bulb moment. I have now been off work for 2 months with depression. I have been struggling to understand what is going on and why I have it. When first went off, work were calling me, and two managers even turned up at my front door after two weeks off work!!! As I’ve written above I work in adult services and have found over the last 8 years in particular that the nature of my work has become more crisis, complex and muti-faceted. This with changes in legislation over last few years, and massive budget cuts and redundancies. Less social workers available, which have led to more cases being handed to me with comments ‘this needs a social worker’. I swear that some of my cases if they were written up in a book, people would think they were fiction.

          I feel I am one person doing the job that several should do. Team has reduced from 21 to 11 now. I am also a human being and thins gets forgotten, as social workers we have to be ‘professional’, almost super human and not be affected by the harrowing things we deal with on a daily basis. Of course this is impossible. Your comments on post traumatic stress have certainly rang bells with me, and I’m going to look into it. I ave just spoken to my GP who agrees with me and has referred me though to mental health services to explore this.

          I really feel like this needs to raised as a real real issue for the profession. When I’m well enough to return to work I’m going to raise this with union, occupational health and everyone else!!! It also emphasizes the lack of access to appropriate, constructive supervision I have not been able to access. Not helped when new policy in organisation I work for have decreased supervisions to 8 a years, and team managers working from home all the time.

          • Ellie August 13, 2016 at 10:14 pm #

            Dear Debbie,

            I am very sorry to hear of the problems that you have been through. I apologize if this sounds trite, but I cannot really offer anything else – other than to say that I can empathize.

            My personal feeling is that Social Workers are being treated in a grossly injust and unfair fashion. There should be NO sense of shame whatsoever associated with the admission that one is only human, and therefore sometimes struggles to be “perfect” all the time. NO human is perfect – even the robots that Public Sector jobs increasingly seem to demand us to become are NOT perfect. Robots cannot be perfect! As far as I am aware, no scientist has yet developed a robot with a full range of functioning human emotions, including compassion and empathy! By contrast, poor, undervalued Social Workers are expected to use a huge range of emotions – most definitely compassion and empathy – on a daily basis, with little recognition, ad few thanks. There should be NO shame in admitting that sometimes this can be taxing, even draining – especially when considering the fact that Social Workers assist service-users who are often very vulnerable, and are in emotionally-fraught situations.

            Social Work is perhaps a peculiar job in that workers are required to work on a physical level, but equally on an emotional level. It demand that staff enter situations that are by nature highly emotionally charged. If we stop to think about this, then it makes sense to consider that, of course, it WILL have a big impact. I’ll give you an example…

            Hands up how many of you readers cry when you watch a weepy, emotional film? I’ll admit that sometimes I do!

            I’ll bet that many other people do, too. So, if we know that people can be made to cry just by watching a sad film – a film that is quite likely FICTION – then we know that our emotions can be triggered by watching, hearing or generally being around OTHER PEOPLE’S EMOTIONS. That kind of suggests that Social Workers, who do a job where they are constantly surrounded by other people’s emotions, WILL naturally be affected by this. It is a perfectly acceptable response. Indeed, it would actually be MORE WORRYING if the Social Workers WAS NOT AFFECTED.

            MY argument is that a person who is affected by other people’s emotions is a sensitive, empathic, compassionate person. The qualities of being empathic, sensitive and compassionate are what make a person capable of sensing and reacting to other’s emotions, and what open a person up to being affected by other’s emotions. To NOT be affected by other people’s emotions would necessitate a person being emotionally-detached in some way that is likely to lead to a reduction in empathy, compassion and sensitivity.

            So, Social Workers have a sort of “double bind” to face. They are probably, as I was and you were, drawn to the job because by nature they ARE empathic, sensitive and compassionate – BUT the very FACT that this IS their nature is also what makes them SO SUSCEPTIBLE to feeling other people’s emotions keenly, and being affected by them. Put simply, the nature of skills required to do the job necessitates a degree of natural emotional sensitivity; BUT this is what also, without the right support, leads to “burnout”.

            The answer is NOT what the Government seems to think – to demand that workers become “more resilient” in order to tough it out. If, as it seems is believed by the Government, emotional “resilience” equals endless positivity, and no adverse reaction to highly emotionally fraught situations; then I would argue that such emotionally “resilient” people would NOT make good Social Workers. Why? Because we need to be sensitive, to react to emotional situations, to feel others’ emotions, and our own – and to do so strongly. For example, I should be extremely concerned were a Social Worker to visit a family who were about to be made homeless, and have their second child taken into care as a result, and this Social Worker WAS NOT affected by what they had witnessed. Or, if a Social Worker worked with somebody who was being abused, and DID NOT find this harrowing and upsetting. MY feeling would be that somebody who was NOT emotionally moved by such situations is a person who LACKS real emotional depth, and thus probably LACKS compassion, empathy and sensitivity. HOW can Social Workers NOT be moved by what they witness?

            THIS is why I see “burnout” in such professions NOT as a sign of weakness, or of “depression”. Rather, it is symptomatic of a worker who feels very much – who feels strongly and deeply, and who so desperately wants to care, and support, and help the service-user – BUT who is NOT supported him- or herself. A worker who is being pushed to the edge of PTSD be repeatedly having to try to help service-users who are in really dire situations, despite having few resources, little support, and little recognition.

            IF Social Workers are given the RIGHT tools to do the job, and the RIGHT support, plus some recognition for what they do, then their emotional sensitivity and compassionate nature is actually a blessing. BUT they DO NEED this support. It is time the Government, and the general public, understood that Social Workers are only human – albeit often very caring, sensitive, compassionate, highly emotional humans – BUT only human. NO human can work miracles. Indeed, NO human can work without the necessary equipment, resources, infrastructure, training, and support to do the job.

            DON’T feel ashamed. DON’T label yourself “depressed”. Instead, accept that you cared – possibly a little TOO much for the environment in which you were forced to work – and that caring is a good thing. Know, too, that caring people, when helped and encouraged to do what they do best are a valuable asset. There is NO shame in caring. Remember that – and remember, too, that should you return to Social Work, your caring nature, when correctly supported, is what enables you to do your best for your service-users.

            If only those in charge could see and understand this!

    6. Alan Wheatley July 29, 2016 at 7:38 pm #

      Thank you for this blog post. There is now and has long been increasing burnout for the unwaged, as more and more ‘conditionality’ has been heaped on us by abusive governments with their corporate advisers intent on dismantling and privatising the ‘welfare state’.

      That is particularly the case where the ‘conditionality’ imposed upon benefit claimants is done without any regard for disability impact assessment. Along those lines, I commend your readers to explore what blogger Kate Belgrave — Talking with people dealing with public sector cuts — has written regarding what adults with learning difficulties are faced with at the jobcentre.

      Members of Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group and other such self-help groups do casework to help other benefit claimants through disability benefit claims and other such matters, and KUWG are currently staging and attending a series of two burnout workshops.

      As I said at the first of those workshops, I am much less burnt out now that I am on Employment & Support Allowance (Support Group) status with my disability than I ever was on unemployment benefit and later Jobseekers Allowance. Yet I am not one of the caseworkers and largely confine my responsibilities to the KUWG blog, health permitting. Some of our most active case workers were sadly too burnt out and in ill health to attend the first of our burnout workshops.

      Yet claimants’ lives and therapeutic outcomes are now increasingly in danger of being dictated by a government aided and abetted by American ‘health insurance’ corporate advisers to incorporate ‘psychocoercion’ and ‘work cure’ into the therapeutic framework, as I have argued Global corporate lobbyists and right wing politicians only hate regulation when it is not on their terms. Screwing the disadvantaged is their staple diet.

      All that is the kind of situation you get when the current Welfare Reform Minister was an investment banker hired by a Labour Government to transform the welfare state into something supposedly less costly to the taxpayer and more rewarding to private enterprise — if not to the benefit claimants themselves, whom he labelled as mostly ‘not legitimate’..

    7. Anthony July 30, 2016 at 9:16 am #

      Hello everyone
      As a year 2 student of social work and reading the story and the comments, I am getting concerned and worried about what I hv let myself into. I know other professions have their own issues but none is as serious as what I hv just read. It is really worrying as one can only give their best if they re hale, hearty and happy. Apart from work we also hv our families to look after, if we don’t get support from our managers and senior colleagues where does the help come from. And if there is a mistake in the line of duty we get ridiculed and laughed at without the press knowing the full details of the story.I know it’s easier said than done but please our health first before anything else.

    8. Anon July 31, 2016 at 8:29 am #

      All of these comments are not listened to by government. Social workers are not valued are under paid . Social workers are committed workers who are subject to daily abuse from clients,professionals, management and social media. We work to protect others yet nobody protects us! You lose your personality you lose your social life you lose your integrity . Nobody is really bothered about your personal feelings as long as you manage to work to timescales and your employer becomes strategically happy!
      What happened to Eillen Munroes recommendations?

    9. Monia July 31, 2016 at 2:40 pm #

      Thank you social work tutor and all colleagues in adults and children social work for sharing the pain of stress and work conditions. I work in adult social work and it is no different when it comes to our negative work experiences. I was badly bullied by not 1 but a group of managers after doing the “unthinkable” and raised service related concerns and behaviours. Over a period of time, I started to get excluded from many area directly related to my work, isolated, emotionally manipulated and all that goes with bullying behaviour. I completely recognise the intense feelings of anxiety and the often sense of confusion you Stuart feel. Horrible and at times if felt so cruel. Like you I’m a very experienced social worker of 20 years in the profession with management experience too. I returned to front line social work because of the unethical practices I experienced whilst working with a group of managers. They made my life a daily living hell over almost 3 year period. Went off with stress when I could no longer cope with it made worse by the silence treatment I received from the service manager whom I made aware of the problems on a more than one occasion. Whilst recovering, I read a lot about work related stress and the responsibilities the employer has to deal with work related stress under Heath and safety laws. The employer has duty of care responsibilities and where they become aware of work related stress cases, they are expected to carry out risk assessments as part of a control mechanism to minimise stress related ill health. I agree that burnout due to work related stress should be an industrial injury matter. We do need to understand what our rights are when our heath becomes affected as a direct result of poor working conditions. I wish all the social workers the best of health and the strength to continue supporting the vulnerable children and adults in need of our empathy and compassion.

    10. Jay August 1, 2016 at 11:17 am #

      Burnout and high levels of stress are a huge issue in Adult social work. I have been an adults frontline social worker for nearly 10 years and feel that levels of stress and burnout are on the increase.
      Many factors contributing to this but but I think that at a time of increasing cutbacks the introduction of The Care Act and personalisation has had a huge impact on social workers feeling overwhelmed. Many social workers with adults are now ‘generic’ and expected to work with individuals with needs ranging from Dementia, autism, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, mental health, drug and alcohol issues, self neglect etc. At a times when demands on social care have increased, whilst the principles of The Care Act and personalisation are essential to our values, ethics and good practice what has happened is that eligibility thresholds have now been lowered and individuals and other professionals expectations have been raised, and yet there are intense financial constraints on services that we can provide.
      Fewer qualified staff, higher levels of complex caseloads, increased responsibilities such as safeguarding, MCA and DOLs and most importantly The Care Act that promises a lot but allows practitioners neither the time or resources to deliver has all contributed to increasing pressure on social workers.

    11. Ellie August 3, 2016 at 2:25 pm #

      Could NOT agree more. Social Workers are, in the main, decent, caring people who went into a job where they wanted to help. They should not be left to burn out. I can completely understand that many things that are NOTHING to do with the INDIVIDUAL WORKER can still lead to burnout. Nobody should be forced to carry an excessive caseload, to do countless hours of unpaid overtime just in order to have enough hours in the day to get the job done. Nobody should have to face the endlessly competing demands of trying to fit tons of ever-increasing bureaucracy and paperwork around visiting service-users. Nobody should have to drive regularly to home visits and other appointments, then find that travelling time is not factored into the working day. Nobody should have to work in an environment that suffers lack of funding, lack of resources – where staff turnover is high, where there are lots of agency workers, and where things like “hotdesking” are the norm. Nobody should have to work with poor management, lack of supervision, or lack of peer support. Nobody should have to work in an overcrowded office, that is noisy and has outdated facilities. Nobody should have to struggle to park at work, or pay for parking at work, because the office car park is too small, or non-existent (and the amount of time it takes to find a parking space actually makes you late for work unless you turn up ridiculously early!). Nobody should have to work with the inevitable annoyance and frustration caused by increasing red-tape, ever changing and confusing legislation, or legislation that conflicts with other rules/regulations.

      Still, in MY experience (and I have noted from the comments above I am NOT alone), it is not really “burnout” that is the problem. The impression I get is that Social Workers are FORCED to burn out, because their managers and employers DO NOT listen to them, or put things right. Like “Monia” says (above) many of us try our hardest to point out poor working conditions, or things that make the job difficult, in the hope that changes can be made that will help staff to avoid “burnout”. However, many of us find that the outcome of this is not being listened to. Sometimes, we even end up getting BULLIED just because we have dared to speak up about obvious problems.

      In my last job (which was in an Adult Service) I was horrendously bullied at work, just because I had raised major concerns about working conditions that made it impossible for me to do my job. And I DO mean LITERALLY IMPOSSIBLE! When I started the job, during my induction even, I was from the outset left to my own devices. I worked in a so-called “integrated” team alongside NHS staff (who made it CLEAR they DID NOT WANT Social Workers there!). My line manager was a Nurse, and it was obvious from the outset that he had no idea what was required in terms of an induction for a Social Worker. he had not even made arrangements for basic training or for basic facilities to be provided. In the end, a Senior Social Worker in the team had to step in and complete my induction. This was really unfair on her, as she had not agreed to have this responsibility, and at the time she was busy inducting two other staff of completely different grades (Support Workers). She had little time to induct THREE people all at the same time, so I ended up basically having to find my way around work, and working practices, on my own. I don’t recall EVER being given clear information about policies and procedures, or where to locate them – and when I tried to ask other staff (especially the NHS Nurses on the team) they would just roll their eyes and say “oh, you’re a qualified Social Worker, don’t you know already!”.

      I was not even provided with the most basic facilities to do my job – NO desk of my own, and NO computer. I was the ONLY person in the office made to “hotdesk”, which felt incredibly discriminatory. ALL the NHS staff had their own facilities, but Social Care staff (excepting the Senior Social Worker) did not. There were only 3 Social Care staff in the team – me, another Social Worker, and the Senior Social Worker (plus 2 support workers who did not require their own computer facilities as they were appended to Social Workers). I had NO facilities. The other Social Worker in the team had a laptop that he said he had brought with him from a previous post! Only the Senior Social Worker had a computer. If I asked to use a computer belonging to one of the NHS Nurses, they often refused to let me. On one occasion, I worked through my LUNCH BREAK just so I could use a computer (on one of the Nurse’s desks) or else I could not have commissioned a care package in time. The Nurse came back from lunch and SCREAMED AT ME IN FRONT OF THE WHOLE OFFICE. She accused me of using HER computer which meant that the work SHE had been doing was now LOST! This was a COMPLETE LIE. If she HAD been still logged into the computer and working on it, then I would NOT have been able to log in (staff had to log out to allow others to use the computer). So, she was clearly LOGGED OUT and NOT working on it. Furthermore, leaving oneself logged in whilst NOT at the computer was a DISCIPLINARY OFFENCE, so why she even suggested she had done this was ridiculous!

      Suffice it to say, I found it so hard to get on with my job that I ended up making a formal complaint in which I pointed out that I had NO facilities – desk or computer. Did this help? Not really. Afterwards I was ignored by my boss, ostracized by other staff – and they gossiped behind my back. The desk and computer too ages to sort out, so meantime I ended up having to use a computer belonging to one of the MEDICAL SECRETARIES in the Typing Pool – which wan in a completely different room, because the Nurses were SO rude to me if I asked to use their computers. Much of my day was spent traipsing around trying to find a desk to work at! I cannot describe the frustration.

      Added to this, the formal training I received was nest to none-existant. I had been there for at least SIX MONTHS before I even got a MANDATORY fire and safety lecture! As to updates of computer training – I had just ONE in all the time I worked there (FOUR YEARS)!

      In my case, “burnout” just was NOT the word. I did NOT burn out. I was FORCED TO SUFFER by colleagues and managers who did not give a damn. I did everything I possibly could to highlight the things that were making it difficult for me to do my job – lack of basic facilities being the main issue. And, rather than listen to me, or assist me, my managers and colleagues BULLIED me for pointing these things out. I repeat, I did not by choice or design burn out – I was BULLIED to the edge of “burnout”! In this I can so totally agree with, and empathise with, others like “Monia” who have reported similar issues.

      Jus how can one NOT burn out when one is prevented from doing one’s own job properly, and when this is pointed out, instead of it being put right, you get BULLIED? Personally, I had believed I was doing the RIGHT thing by pointing out the lack of facilities that made my job impossible. Surely NOBODY would have expected me to say nothing? HOW, then, could I have done my job? So WHY should I be bullied for pointing this out? WHY should any Social Worker be punished and bullied for pointing out things that make the job unnecessarily difficult, or may lead to “burnout” – especially if these things could be fixed?

      I totally believe that “burnout”, especially when deliberately or carelessly induced by the actions or inactions of management and colleagues, SHOULD be an industrial injury matter. Like “Monia” I read up a lot about my rights, raised issues correctly, took the appropriate action – and STILL got ignored, blanked and bullied. No wonder staff leave! Employers DO have a duty of care – but what I see is far too many of them flouting it, and nobody doing anything to prevent this until it is way too late. Hence excessive staff turnover, and “burnout” rates!

      What worries me, however, most of all is that the staff like me, and “Monia” – who are on the receiving end of such callous treatment – are actually little more than unwilling “guinea pigs” in research carried out to look at staff “resilience” (which appears to be the buzzword of the moment), and which permits the infliction of severe emotional (and sometimes physical) injury on innocent people who do nothing to deserve it. We are NOT asked to consent to participation in such research, which I know for a fact is ongoing. (It is this that has lead to the Department of Health and Depatment of Education interest in Social Work). There is nothing wrong with research, and with looking into staff working conditions. There is nothing wrong with looking at how policies and procedures, or working conditions affect staff. However, what IS WRONG is the use of selected staff as “guinea pigs” WITHOUT their explicit consent. THIS HAS TO STOP. It is THIS, more than anything else at present in Social Work, that is KILLING CAREERS and leading to “burnout”.

      Social Workers – nor any other group of professionals – are NOT RESEARCH “LAB RATS”!

    12. Ellie August 3, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

      I write this to add to, and better explain, my previous post. Apologies in advance if it is long…

      First of all, please allow me to explain that I am NOT automatically anti all research. Indeed, I agree wholeheartedly that research can be useful, and beneficial. Nor am I automatically anti the idea of the Government taking an interest in worker’s rights, working conditions and so forth. Indeed, I feel that the current belief that workers should develop and build upon emotional resilience may be a sound one… However, this is ONLY the case if the GENUINE intent is to help Social Workers, and to foster an ongoing improvement in working conditions – to make things better for Social Workers.

      IF, on the other hand, the current Government interest in Social Work, coupled with research into such things as resilience, is more about looking to see just HOW MANY cuts can be made, and just HOW FAR Social Workers can be pushed towards “burnout” without actually burning out, whilst STILL trying to provide a good service for clients, then all I can say is this is a recipe for disaster. The desire to foster emotional resilience amongst Social Workers – indeed amongst any group of employees – should NOT be based upon a desire to push them to their absolute limits, whilst still attempting to get something out of them in respect of a continued good service that hides dwindling resources and attempts to make ends meet despite severe funding cuts. IF THIS is the reason for the Government’s interest – and research – then it is little wonder that Social Work remains a struggling profession. For, in such a case, “emotional resilience” becomes little more than a club to beat workers over the heads with. The message becomes not ” we will improve funding and resources and so improve resilience”, instead it is “you MUST become resilient in order that we can force MORE budget and resource cuts, and consequently MORE pressure on you”. The added (hidden) message is that to fail to become acceptably “resilient” (whatever that actually means – and does anyone truly know?), is to be considered a “nuisance”, a “burnout”, a “failure” and a “bad Social Worker”!

      I say this because I cannot help but notice that Social Work, more than any other Public Sector profession at present, is becoming somewhat of a “scapegoat”. It faces endless budgetary and resource cuts – cuts that other Public Sector jobs in the NHS or defence are NOT having to face. NHS and defence funding often get “ring fenced” in a way that Social Care does NOT, even though Social Care is clearly EQUALLY IMPORTANT. Indeed, organizations like the NHS cannot function properly without a reliance on Social Care. For example, lack of care packages is leading to NHS hospital “bed blocking” – but who gets the blame? In the main, Social Workers do! See… “scapegoating”, pure and simple! The LESS funding is given to Social Care, then the LESS staff and resources are available. OF COURSE this will have knock-on effects – how can it NOT?! If Social Workers do not have the funding and resources to do their jobs effectively, then HOW CAN THEY? This is NOT about emotional resilience – believe me, it is NOT. It is TRULY about that which ALL Social Workers have been perfectly capable of identifying – FUNDING CUTS ARE MAKING THE JOB IMPOSSIBLE. NO amount of “resilience” can change this.

      You would NOT expect a surgeon to be able to do his/her job effectively armed only with a scalpel, thermometer, stethoscope and Elastoplast. So WHY expect Social Workers to do THEIR job faced with ever dwindling resources, that amount to little more than “Elastoplast” care? NO amount of resourcefulness and creativity will enable a worker to do a job WITHOUT the RIGHT TOOLS! You would NOT expect a Policeman or Policewoman to make an arrest and hold a criminal without a cell in which to place the prisoner. You would NOT expect an Architect to design a block of flats without a computer, and armed only with a compass and slide rule. You would NOT expect two Nurses to do the job of six. Yet, in Social Work, this sort of thing IS expected. Staff carry massive caseloads – one worker could end up with enough cases to easily provide work for two or three people. Staff report having to “hotdesk” due to lack of computers. Care Homes and Day Centres to which staff could refer clients for support are increasingly losing funding and being closed. BUT Social Workers are STILL expected to provide a good service despite all the cuts and loss of vital resources. HOW? Might it not be that THIS is INEVITABLY going to lead to “burnout” because it is an untenable situation?

      Social Workers are in an uncomfortable position as “scapegoats”. Not only are they Public Sector “scapegoats”, in that they seem to be facing MORE cuts than most… they are also the “scapegoats” of clients. Social Workers have INDIVIDUAL caseloads, so they have a very different one-to-one relationship with clients compared to many NHS staff. In a hospital, for instance, Nurses on wards work in TEAMS. So there are always several Nurses to look after patients. Even in hospitals facing cuts, INDIVIDUAL staff rarely take the blame for the impact of cuts. Patients do not usually single out INDIVIDUAL Nurses or Doctors. If the impact of cuts IS complained about by patients, they usually complain about the WHOLE hospital, or ward they were on. They rarely blame individual staff (unless the staff genuinely are bad workers). By contrast, INDIVIDUAL Social Workers get blamed for things that are NOT their fault. They get held responsible for the impact of budget cuts in a way that NHS staff like Nurses do not. This is because individual Social Workers are the first point of contact for service-users, who obviously rely on them to access care. When a Social Worker fails to deliver a care package that a client really wants or needs – even though this is NOT the fault of the Social Worker, but is due to finding cuts or service closures – the service-user may BLAME THE SOCIAL WORKER. It is a kind of “shoot the messenger” situation, in which the Social Worker who has contact with the service-user as part of a caseload is the person who ends up having to tell the service-user that they cannot have a particular service or care package. BECAUSE the Social Worker delivers this information, THEY become to blame! It is NOT really the Social Worker’s fault. NOR is it the service-user’s fault – obviously, in their frustration and anger at not being able to have the care they wanted (and often needed) they take it out on the first person to hand. Their Social Worker.

      Other Public Sector workers perhaps cannot comprehend this, because it does not necessarily happen to them. They generally work in teams, and not on individual caseloads – so any blame is more of a shared responsibility. Maybe this is another factor in making Social Work the more stressful job – INDIVIDUAL caseloads equal INDIVIDUAL blame!

      I cannot help but wonder whether service-users, and other Public Sector staff, are fully aware of the difficult circumstances in which some Social Workers are made to work. I am pretty sure that a Nurse who is forced to do a job lacking vital resources would soon burn out. So would a Doctor, or a Policeman, or a Physiotherapist. This is so NOT the fault of Social Workers.

      In my own personal experience that I wrote about above… Just HOW can you be expected t do your job WITHOUT even a desk or computer? The fact that I complained about this SHOULD NOT have lead to bullying. I complained about a genuine obstacle to doing the job – if it had been removed effectively, then I could have done the job I was hired to do. Sadly, it seems that Social Workers who highlight things that lead to “burnout” or make the job unnecessarily difficult are not getting help – instead they are being labelled “trouble”, “whingers”, “jobsworths”, “fusspots”, “stress-heads”. They are being made to feel as though they are incapable of doing the job. That complaining about poor working conditions or lack of resources is “wrong”. They are being treated like “whistleblowers” who need to be got rid of.

      Well… you tell me how ANYONE an do their job as a Social Worker without even a desk and computer? Tell me WHY it was wrong to complain. Tell me, too, WHAT RIGHT my employer – a hospital at which I was also being treated as a patient ( and my employer KNEW this) – had to tell me off for attending necessary medical appointments (which, incidentally, were at the hospital where I worked). Tell me WHY it was “wrong” to have legitimate time off work for SURGERY. Tell me WHY I had to wait over SIX MONTHS for vital, compulsory Fire lectures , or Health & Safety training. Tell me WHY a colleague could SCREAM at me for using her computer, when she wasn’t even using it herself at the time. Tell me WHY my manager hadn’t even prepared for my induction by the time I started the job. Tell me WHY, when I was finally allocated a desk, and given a computer, the computer WASN’T EVEN WIRED UP (it was just plonked on the desk without being connected). Tell me WHY then I had to keep hassling my manager to remember to get the IT team to connect my computer…

      And then, tell me if YOU could have worked under such conditions. Emotional resilience! I’ll give you emotional resilience! It would have tested the patience of a Saint!!

    13. J Bon August 3, 2016 at 9:59 pm #

      You get a social work assistant! I want to work with one of those!!! Haha! I’m in Canada practicing at a hospital of 50 clients with severe mental health issues. I’ve been doing it about 3 years and worked in care homes for several years before that. I’m getting burnt and trying to do what I can but it’s tough sometimes. I definitely agree with the sentiment that it’s the environments we work in. I don’t have a team of social workers to run things by, it’s me and the other health care professionals. Thanks for the suggestions. I’m going to put some more thought into them this week.

    14. JJ August 3, 2016 at 10:10 pm #

      I can only agree with all the concerns and worries here. It’s become intolerable to be a social worker and I cannot see it getting any better. I am planning my exit because I want to respect myself and enjoy my life again. It’s very sad.

    15. Ian Kemp August 4, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

      Re all the above comments re burn out.. As I have said the organisation of social work is not fit for purpose . It is too bureaucratic . It is not professional. It is essentially about control with increasingly limited resources. Social workers are mere operatives within the local Gov system . They are in reality no longer a profession .There are no social work departments There is no professional ethos./The intellectual base that was once social work has long disappeared ..
      Neoliberalism as part of globalisation, where the individual must sink or survive, means that social work is not really in its present organisational structure able to offer more than a sticking plaster approach to the problems it is faced with. That will not change in the near future certainly with our present Politicians..
      There are no easy answers to the problem as the system stands . The same old responses the same insensitive bureaucratic managerial approach will continue to dominate , and social work as a profession will continue to decline. This will do no favours to the majority of hard working social workers who battle against increasing pressure nor to the clients they are there to help, whether they realise it or not . Burn out is understandable.

    16. Sharon August 8, 2016 at 7:38 am #

      I have experienced all of the above and when I filed for work comp related to severe symptoms of depression I was required to submit to an assessment that was employer referred. To say the least, with 100% stats, numerous letters of appreciation for my work ethic coupled with supervisor support, this person was able to rip what was left of my soul out suggesting that I was seeking secondary gains even with merit findings of harrassment and embezzlement forgery whistle-blower retaliation. The ultimate finding was I was good at what I did and “worked to the exclusion of hobbies, friends and family, 24 hours a day” making me the perfect employee. This was the most devastating hack job after all I had sacrificed and the numerous times I pleaded for help after 4 years in personal therapy trying to cope. Several of my colleagues committed suicide and with little mention their seats were up for auction if they so happened to be window seats. Other colleagues died of neglected health that by the time they were forced to tend to long term worsening symptoms they were in late stages of cancer. The internal losses aside from a dysfunction systems and external high risk complex assignments and client threats I am completely baffled that my admission of depression made me a target and totally alienated me as no one wanted to get involved and risk being targeted. Seriously, this is supposed to be an environment of people trained extensively in the helping field and when one of their own reaches out for help they completely fail as a system to acknowledge the likelihood and refute any cost risk factors by any means necessary. Yet these are the same people that would mourn, momentarily the loss of a colleague and even go as far as write articles on the loss offering support to any friend in need. The Union failed on so many levels but by the time I understood the dynamics enough to act, I was outside of my right to do so. I will never return as much as I felt the same connection to the families, the burdens are too high, the support is too few and the employers decision to target rather than find a system of care to address employees when they find themselves struggling with such important duties as the life of a child. I have seen everything from a supervisor shooting himself in the head to the funeral of an infant. I am scarred in ways I’ll never get over and to be abandoned in legal entanglement is simply disheartening.