Managing stress in social work

Managing stress in social work by Helga Pile, national officer for social work, Unison .


by Helga Pile, national officer for social work, Unison

Stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressure or other types of demand placed upon them”. In 2007-08, some 13.5 million working days were lost to work-related stress.

Causes of stress in social work

There are high risk factors for social workers under each of the Health and Safety Executive’s key sources of stress:

• Demand: Excessive workloads and a high degree of personal accountability

• Control: Little ability to control the flow of work or the availability of resources.

• Support: Variable access to supervision and to support from colleagues.

• Relationships: Managing a complex web of relationships, with people who may be hostile or stressed themselves; and with other professionals with their own priorities.

• Role: Lack of shared understanding between the public, the media, employers and practitioners themselves.

• Change: Constant change with little input from social workers.

What your employer should do

Your employer has a legal duty to ensure your health, safety and welfare. This means they must assess the risks of stress and put in measures to control, eliminate and prevent them. They should use the HSE stress standards as their guide. Measures which merely seek to help people cope, such as yoga or meditation, are not sufficient. When an employee presents with stress they must take positive steps to remove the individual causes.

What you can do

• Monitor any changes to how you are feeling at work. There are a wide range of stress symptoms including sleeplessness, memory problems, tearfulness, headaches, anxiety and reduced performance.

• Be aware of workplace changes which could create excessive pressure, such as mounting workload, paperwork backlog, IT failures, staff shortages, or being bullied or threatened.

• Make sure you are getting regular supervision sessions with the opportunity to review your workload and reflect on your practice

• Keep a log of your working hours, TOIL, unused leave and so on. Getting proper rest is up there with eating five a day when it comes to preventing ill-health.

If you do find you are beginning to suffer from stress, remember that it’s not your fault. Too often social workers keep quiet and blame themselves for not coping. Instead, you must raise it in writing with your manager.

What protection does the law give?

Employers have a common law duty of care to their employees. This means employees can bring personal injury claims for stress. The key legal test is whether the employer should have foreseen that the worker would suffer stress harmful to their health.

Who can help you?

Unison has helped many members win compensation. But our aim is always to prevent it from coming to that. Raising stress with your employer is a stressful thing to do. Union safety representatives are specially trained to help you do so early on and assist with negotiating changes like more training or flexible hours. But, as importantly, your Unison reps have powers and rights which enable them to tackle stress as a collective issue.

More resources on stress management:

Community Care’s guide to social work stress.

Stress Management Society.

International Stress Management Association UK.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.


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