Stress is a serious problem in social work. Research from Community Care and Unison found that, in a single day in 2016, more than 50% of social workers felt ‘over the limit’ with the number of cases they had been given. And according to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) 2016 Labour Force Survey, the occupations that reported the highest rates of total cases of work-related stress (over a three-year average) were ‘welfare professionals’, followed by nurses and teachers.
In a recently-updated guide for Community Care Inform, Ray Braithwaite gives practical guidance on how team managers can identify strengths and problem areas in their team and organisation, and find strategies for improvement. These are some key pieces of advice from his guide. Inform subscribers can read the full piece on Inform Adults and Inform Children.
The management standards approach
As a team manager, it’s vital to keep thinking about both what you as an individual manager do to promote the positive mental health and wellbeing of staff and also what the wider organisation does. Stressed social workers can easily lead to a stressed manager – being able to reflect on what you are able to change or influence yourself and what you need to refer upwards can help you avoid this.
The HSE’s management standards define the characteristics, or culture, of an organisation where the risks from work-related stress are being effectively managed and controlled.
They cover six key areas of work design which, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health and well-being, lower productivity and increased sickness absence. In other words, the six management standards cover the primary sources of stress at work. These are:
- Demands: This includes issues such as workload, work patterns and the work environment.
- Control: How much say the person has in the way they do their work.
- Support: This includes the encouragement, sponsorship and resources provided by the organisation, line management and colleagues.
- Relationships: This includes promoting positive working to avoid conflict and dealing with unacceptable behaviour.
- Role: Whether people understand their role within the organisation and whether the organisation ensures that they do not have conflicting roles.
- Change: How organisational change (large or small) is managed and communicated in the organisation.
The management standards represent a set of conditions that, if present, reflect a high level of health well-being and organisational performance.
Impact of the workplace culture on managing stress
Organisational culture is a fundamental element in whether work-related stress is reduced or maintained. This culture may have been in existence for years or it may be established by a new appointment of a key figure(s).
High levels of stress will be found:
- in staff who feel unsupported;
- in situations where there are excessive demands, such as high caseloads comprised of complex and difficult situations;
- where staff feel pressurised in completing work;
- where people fear making mistakes.
A healthy organisational culture is one where open and honest communication exists at all levels, and where staff feel encouraged, enabled and supported to deal with the often difficult and highly complex situations they face. It is one where mistakes are understood, where a blame culture is not allowed to flourish and where mutual respect is established.
Workplace bullying is identified as one of the greatest sources of stress employees can endure. But organisations and managers are often slow to react to cases of bullying because bullying is not always accepted as a credible label for the kind of abuse that employees face in the workplace. (Alker, 2010) Understandings of what constitutes bullying vary – there is no standard definition. Acas (Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service), the organisation that supports employers and employees to resolve workplace problems, suggests a description of:
offensive, intimidating, malicious or insulting behaviour, an abuse or misuse of power through means that undermine, humiliate, denigrate or injure the recipient.” (Acas, 2014)
As a manger there are a number of strategies for managing workplace bullying to offer staff:
- Openly discuss the topic.
- Actively promote a working environment where bullying is less likely to flourish, where staff feel empowered to challenge bullying.
- Gather information.
- Raise awareness of your agency’s policy on the issue.
- Take immediate action by dealing with situations at a low level before they escalate.
- Look at Bullying at work, a website containing information on workplace bullying.
Bullying and harassment at work: a guide for managers and employers
Alker L (2010)
‘Workplace bullying: The dark side of organisational life‘
The Great Debate