Snowed under and stressed out, social workers send in the sicknotes

A drive towards e-government, a fear of violence from clients,
unmanageable workloads and staff shortages are just some of the
reasons why social workers are the most stressed professionals in
the UK.

A recent study from business psychology company Robertson Cooper
says social workers have the third worst level of physical health
and the fifth lowest level of job satisfaction out of the 26
professions it surveyed (news, page 8, 3 June). The study also
acknowledges social workers’ dedication to their profession.

The Employers’ Organisation (EO), which represents local
authorities, warns that stress is the single most important cause
of sickness absence in local government, which averages 10.7 days
an employee a year. The average in the private sector is 7.2 days
an employee.

But a 2002 survey of 171 social services departments recorded an
average annual sickness rate of 16.1 days an employee, with women
suffering more than men. The EO says the situation has not improved
greatly in 2004.

The problem has become so costly for councils that the EO is to
produce a report later this year highlighting best practice on how
to prevent stress at work.

With sickness absence figures higher in the public than the private
sector and a national shortage of social workers, how does a local
authority retain and attract staff?

Brighton & Hove Council is inundated with applications because
of its benefits package, which includes relocation expenses or
payment of six months’ rent. On the job, social workers receive
access to a personal development manager, risk assessments on
specific scenarios to reduce the threat of violence, 10 weeks’ free
counselling independent of the council, as well as mentors and
flexible working.

Lance Richard, human resources adviser for Brighton & Hove,
says: “No one can continually deal with complex cases all the time.
Managers have to work with the social worker to find out how much
they can cope with.”

Gateshead Council is also introducing a well-being policy in
response to a staff survey by Mori last year that showed stress was
affecting the work and personal lives of many staff.

Along with current policies on home working, special leave and
flexible hours, social services will introduce measures to prevent
stress and manage workloads. The emphasis will fall on supervision
arrangements for staff support.

Managers are undergoing staff supervision and support skills
training to help them identify stress at an early stage. The policy
will also include the opportunity to move highly stressed staff to
alternative roles to give them the chance to recuperate.

Bill McKitterick, chair of the Association of Directors of Social
Services training and human resources committee, says managing
staff stress is only part of the problem.

“Social work is by nature a stressful profession and managers can
identify tasks that can be carried out by others to allow social
workers to do what they are trained to do,” he says. “However, the
government needs to help too.”

McKitterick calls for the introduction of national standards and
resources for the implementation of technology to help social
workers in the long run.

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