Tackling stress at work

To mark National Stress Awareness Day on 5 November, Anabel Unity Sale looks at efforts being made to improve the wellbeing of social workers and care professionals.

Are you feeling stressed? It is not surprising if you are. Social work is a notoriously demanding job and those in frontline roles are often up against it. Curtailing someone’s liberty, taking a child into care or supporting a bereaved partner are all inherantly stressful scenarios to deal with, but when combined with large case loads, limited budgets and a myriad of bureaucracy it is little wonder care professionals health and wellbeing suffer.

Sickness records

Most recent figures from Local Government Employers show the median sickness absence rate recorded by social services departments is 14.7 days per full-time employee. Stress accounted for 23.7% of total absences and more than half of all days lost to sickness were attributable to long-term absences.

To ensure staff’s good mental wellbeing is the top of employers’ agenda – and workers themselves acknowledge its importance – the National Care Forum and the Social Care Association issued a statement of best practice earlier this year. It details effective approaches for dealing with staff wellbeing, as well as a questionnaire for individual workers to complete about how they feel in their current post.

Personalisation debate

NCF executive director Des Kelly says the guide is particularly significant now as social care is undergoing a fundamental cultural shift in service provision: “We developed the guide because we were concerned the personalisation debate was polarised between traditional services and new ways of working. I’ve no doubt what is required is a different set of services but no-one is having the debate about how we get from here to there, and how social workers are going to deliver it.”

Kelly says as social care and social work evolves it is vital employers ensure staff continue to feel valued. He adds: “The better people feel they are cared for the better their performance and the outcome.”

Support structures

The minimum requirements the assessment tool recommends are for support structures to be in place for workers, such as supervision, induction, training and development opportunities. “It all fits together as part of a good support package and good employers offer this.” Following this approach will, Kelly believes, lead to a reduction in staff turnover and greater consistency in services.

Stress has a “pernicious and pervasive” effect on those in stressful jobs like social work, according to Elisabeth Wilson, counsellor, psychotherapist and author of Stress Proof Your Life. When staff feel stressed they become less productive and despite working harder they get less and less done, Wilson adds. Physical symptoms also manifest themselves as headaches, gut problems, skins conditions and insomnia.

She advises people to tackle their feelings of stress the moment they find things are getting on top of them. Talking things through with a trusted colleague or friend is helpful to pinpoint where the trigger points are. The three signs to look out for are:

• perfectionism – whereby he/she tries to stay in control of a situation by taking on more and more work

• payback – what ‘rewards’ a person gets by constantly working late or tackling crisis

• people – those individuals whose negative behaviour hinders how people work, and those who support it

One the biggest ways to stop stress from taking over a worker’s life is getting employers to understand the seriousness of the problem. Kelly says: “Workers can tell the difference between managers going through the motions and ones who care, and that translates into workers feeling valued.”

Elisabeth Wilson’s stress busting tips:

• If you have a busy day ahead don’t check your emails until 11.30am, instead prioritise what tasks are more important.

• Keep your “to do” list to 7 things as there is more chance you will get them done.

• See your workload as a week or a month rather than daily so you can plan ahead.

• Make a note ahead of time of what help you need from other people to complete a task and approach them early.

• Take 10 minutes out of every day for yourself to do something that makes you happy, like taking a stroll or reading.

Stress Proof Your Life, by Elisabeth Wilson, Infinite Ideas, £12.99


 Health and Safety Executive facts and figures:

• Work-related stress accounts for more than one third of all new incidences of ill health.

• Each case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety linked ill health leads to an average of 30.2 working days lost per individual.

• A total of 13.8 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2006/07.

• In 2005/6 work related stress, depression and anxiety cost Britain in excess of £530 million.

• See the TUC’s stress test for workers at http://www.tuc.org.uk/h_and_s/tuc-5581-f0.cfm

See Outside Left’s view, “So how is your case (over)load”

How do you de-stress? Have your say on CareSpace


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