All Stressed Out

Neil Thompson is a director of Avenue Consulting, a
training and consultancy services provider. He has more than 100
publications to his name, including Anti-Discriminatory Practice,
Understanding Social Work and People Skills. He was formerly
professor of applied social studies at Staffordshire

Recent years have seen a heavy emphasis on the “recruitment
crisis” in social work. In most places I visit as a trainer or
consultant, I hear stories of staff shortages and difficulties in
recruiting qualified personnel. The recent inquiry into the death
of seven-year-old Toni-Ann Byfield also revealed staff shortages
running at 25 per cent. Recruitment is seen as a major challenge
and understandably so.

Yet there is little point putting all of your efforts into
recruiting staff if social workers are leaving faster than you can
replace them. We will not be able to return to a satisfactory
staffing situation until we can solve both problems: recruitment
and retention.

To deal with the retention problem, we need to establish why so
many people are leaving. One reason is that the growth of new posts
as part of key developments such as Quality Protects and Children
First has taken many experienced staff from more mainstream posts.
But this phenomenon alone is not enough to explain the significant
loss of staff. What other reasons can we find for the exodus of
qualified staff?

One key issue is stress. I regularly hear about excessive work
pressures, about managers who are unsupportive because of the huge
pressures they face themselves and about a lack of appreciation for
the demanding work undertaken.

Worse still, stress is often seen as a sign of weakness, rather
than as a warning sign that all is not well in the organisation
concerned.(1) This can lead to people feeling trapped – they are
under immense pressure but if they claim they are under stress,
they run the risk of being labelled as “weak” or “not

Bill McKitterick, chair of the Association of Directors of Social
Services’ human resources committee, was recently reported as
saying that social work is by its nature a stressful profession.(2)
However, the Health and Safety Executive defines stress as “the
adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types
of demand placed on them”.(3)

The idea that social work is by nature a stressful occupation is
therefore both incorrect and unhelpful. It is incorrect because
pressures do not have to be excessive – there is nothing inherent
in social work that will lead to an individual’s coping resources
being overwhelmed – and dangerous because it reinforces the myth
that stress is the sign of a weak individual, rather than an
indication of an organisation that is placing unrealistic and
potentially harmful expectations on its staff.(4) The key word is

Stress has been recognised as a serious problem but it still fails
to receive the attention it deserves. This is because reducing it
involves looking beyond individual capabilities and resilience –
the traditional model of stress – and taking account of
organisational culture, approaches to staff care and well-being,
supervisory and management practices, leadership and so on.

Stress also has organisational dimensions that we ignore at our
peril. One important aspect of these organisational dimensions is
that pressures need to go to where they can best be dealt with – to
the person or persons most likely to have the power to address them
– rather than be pushed down the power chain.

For example, a team that has more referrals than it can possibly
deal with, but in which the team manager keeps allocating the
referrals regardless, is a recipe for disaster. It creates a
pressure cooker effect: the situation keeps getting more heated as
the pressure builds up and people either get “cooked” or the whole
thing blows up.

Stress is a challenge for individuals, but it is also a challenge
for leadership. Can people in leadership positions manage a
high-pressure situation without falling into the trap of simply
allowing the pressure to be passed on to those who are least able
to deal with it?

A heavy workload can be stimulating and motivating. But an
unrealistic workload has the opposite effect: it will demoralise
committed staff, wear them out and, ultimately, drive them away.
Overloaded staff generally produce less work – and often work of a
lower standard – than people who have a demanding but realistic

If staff are overloaded, it will be counterproductive just to dump
more and more pressure on them. But staff might be able to learn
how to manage their pressures more effectively. As someone who has
been running time- and workload-management courses for many years,
I am aware that social work education has tended to neglect
preparing students for the challenges of managing a heavy workload
when they enter the profession. But I am also aware that, however
good staff are at managing a heavy workload, too much work is still
too much work.(5)

What can so easily happen is that staff become overloaded and feel
trapped in a pressure cooker situation. Their morale and coping
abilities will often be reduced in such circumstances, especially
if they feel unsupported and unappreciated. This process can
decrease their ability to cope with their pressures, and so their
circumstances become even more difficult to deal with. They start
to feel stressed and perhaps guilty, feelings that demoralise them
further and make them even less effective. A dangerous, potentially
disastrous vicious circle has become established. Moving on to a
less stressful job then becomes an appealing way out of this

Many staff feel they can’t turn to their managers for help, because
they know that these managers are in the same boat – they too are
overloaded and struggling to cope with unrealistic expectations.
So, again the pressure goes downwards to those least able to do
something about it, rather than upwards to where the power lies. It
becomes an unfair individual challenge, rather than a corporate
challenge of leadership.

Stress is a health and safety issue and, as such, is a shared
responsibility. The individual has certain responsibilities in
terms of managing work as efficiently and effectively as possible.
But when pressures become so great that even well-organised
individuals begin to feel under excessive strain, the corporate
responsibility for health and safety must also come into

Skilful managers can do much to rise to the leadership challenge
that stress presents. But if it continues to be seen as an
individual matter, largely unconnected with organisational issues,
then the pressure cooker will continue to operate – harming many
people, driving some away and discouraging others from joining in
the first place. This challenge is one of major proportions.

If the challenge is not met, recruitment and retention are likely
to remain problems, morale will continue to be much lower than it
needs to be and many people – service providers and service users –
will suffer as a result of the immense damage unrealistic pressures
can do.


This article argues that an emphasis on recruitment is not
enough on its own and needs to be supported by a commitment to
retention – in some places staff are leaving faster than they can
be replaced. A key part of retention is making sure unacceptable
levels of pressure are not driving people away. The recruitment
problem will remain until stress is taken more seriously as an
organisational responsibility.


(1) N Thompson, M Murphy and S Stradling, Meeting the Stress
Challenge, Russell House, 1996 

(2) Community Care, 10 June 2004 

(3) Health and Safety Executive, 

(4) N Thompson, Stress Matters, Pepar, 1999 

(5) N Thompson, People Skills, 2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan,

Further Information   

  • Free information and advice on stress and related matters is at  
  • Information relating to the HSE’s management standards in
    relation to pressure and stress can be found at  
  • Neil Thompson has co-authored two books on stress, Dealing with
    Stress (Macmillan, 1994) and Meeting the Stress Challenge (see
    above). His guide to managing stress, Stress Matters (see above),
    is also available as a training pack from Learning Curve Publishing

Contact the author   

The author can be contacted at  
His website is at

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.