As a student, Mark Drinkwater encountered a marked reluctance among council social work managers to discuss workplace stress
Few people would deny that social work is a stressful profession. And while stress can be an occupational hazard in any job, social workers seem to be particularly prone to it. This would appear to be underlined by a recent British Association of Social Workers survey which found that a quarter of social workers have more than 30 cases at once.
When I was training as a social worker, I remember a lecturer trying to reassure a student who was stressed over an essay, saying “nobody dies if it doesn’t get done”. Unfortunately, this comforting motto only holds true inside the ivory towers of academia. As any tabloid headline writer knows, in the real world clients really do die when social workers, and other professionals, fail to act quickly enough.
Looking back, tackling stress was given scant attention on my own social work course. So, when I returned to university to continue postgraduate studies, my intention was to research how social workers cope with stress in their work. I spent several months trying to persuade the local authority to allow me to interview social workers about their experiences of dealing with stress.
But the reception my proposal received from managers was somewhat tardy and unenthusiastic. In fact, I got the distinct impression that my research topic was far from a popular choice, perhaps because they feared the research might pave the way for compensation claims for stress-related conditions.
If, as I suspect, it was their intention to dissuade me from researching the topic, their delaying tactics worked and eventually I relented and ended up studying the more uplifting topic of service user involvement.
Back in the workplace, I’ve since met many careworn social workers exasperated by their large and often complex caseloads. I vividly remember being taken aback when one former colleague, a hardy-seeming soul, confided in me that they cried every night when they got home because of the intractable nature of the problems they were trying to tackle.
As in offices up and down the country, workers complained about covering for colleagues on long-term sick leave (often with stress-related conditions), working long hours and regularly missing out on lunch breaks to ensure they finished the work. Stress is costly, not only for employers but for the individuals concerned, their colleagues and their service users.
Under the weight of one’s own, and others’ expectations, many find it hard to “switch off” from the work. Dealing with clients who are themselves stressed, the best that social workers can often hope for is damage limitation – so it’s no wonder that some shut down emotionally and suffer from “compassion fatigue”.
People go into social work because they care. In the main it’s the conscientious sort who enters the profession; they are people who want to tackle social injustice. But with little in the way of financial rewards, conflicting demands and a general feeling of being under-appreciated, job satisfaction – to offset the feelings of stress – can be hard to come by.
With the new government set to introduce big cuts, there are tough times ahead for local authorities. But one thing’s for certain – cutting down on agency staff and leaving vacant posts unfilled are not credible options because these would increase the pressure on those already struggling to do their jobs. To further burden already overstretched workers would be a false economy.
Mark Drinkwater is a community worker in south London and is Community Care’s practice consultant
Quarter of social workers handling 30 cases at once – BASW
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This article is published in the 27 May 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Don’t mention the ‘s’ word”