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Why mental health social workers can be particularly prone to stress

Stress-ball-top-slot.jpgResearchers at King’s College London have recently launched a survey to measure stress among approved mental health professionals (AMHPs). This research is welcome because, although all social work can be stressful, there are some notable reasons why mental health social workers are particularly prone to stress. 

In part, this is because of the intractable nature of the problems that they face. Invariably, these social workers are dealing with clients who are stressed or in a state of distress, who are often a risk to themselves, or to others, and who are unappreciative of interventions made in their interests.

AMHPs undertake assessments of people likely to require admission to hospital, sometimes under compulsion. This compulsory treatment, or the consideration of it, does little to foster trusting or therapeutic relationships with service users. Consequently, job satisfaction – a key factor in offsetting stress – is hard to come by.
Added expectation
Longstanding professional rivalries when working in partnership with professionals from health backgrounds further contribute to tension in the role. Then there is perhaps the added expectation that those working in mental health should be better at maintaining their own mental wellbeing; something that may dissuade them from admitting when they are feeling overwhelmed by work.
Previous studies by King’s College researchers found that sickness rates were higher among approved social workers (ASWs, the predecessor to the AMHP role) than among non-ASW mental health social workers. They also found ASWs were less satisfied with their work.

Working in any field of social work is stressful at present. But mental health professionals are particularly troubled as local authorities, primary care trusts and mental health trusts are all looking to make huge savings. The combined effect is a sense that cuts are being made in a number of key areas that affect mental health provision.
A timely opportunity
How individuals cope with stress varies greatly and advice on how to deal with stress can sound trite, although ACAS and the HSE provide some valuable help in this area. Colleagues, too, are undoubtedly a useful source of support.

Over the years, advice, such as “choose your battles carefully”, “always make time for a proper lunch break” and “leave work at work”, has all been helpful. And I’ve found the support of family and friends invaluable, along with a set of interests that I look forward to outside of work.
The current King’s College research project is a neat online survey. It is an important and timely opportunity for mental health social workers to contribute to the understanding of stress in the workplace.

More information


Mark Drinkwater is a community worker and Community Care’s practice adviser.

Click here to return to Mental Health Social Work and Stress: Practice Guide

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2 Responses to Why mental health social workers can be particularly prone to stress

  1. Elliot Wylde 12 April , 2013 at 12:53 am #

    Although this can be a very stressful role, and job satisfaction can be hard to find, when you do feel that you are making a difference, it can be incredibly satisfying.
    Making sure someone is safe, bring someone to the attention of services who have been missed, or just being able to listen to someone and send them in the right direction. Thats when you can get that ‘lightbulb’ moment; this is why I do this.

  2. Dottie Bacon 12 April , 2013 at 12:53 am #

    Based on my own opinion, I think that its great to know why mental health social workers can be particularly prone to stress. I think that being a health care provider it would be great to fully understand the cause of stress on us. I know that many mental health social workers would be interested to learn on what causes the stress on them.