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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