Referral rises, caseloads, vacancies, cuts – there is much to add to social care professionals’ stress levels. Daniel Lombard presents a survival guide
Top tips to tackle stress
1 Spot the warning signs and find the causes
Writing a list is effective management of stress for many people. Include even the small tasks. Develop a plan to tackle each issue.
2 Stay healthy
Good physical health goes hand-in-hand with the ability to handle pressure.
3 Learn to prioritise
If there are just too many things to do in the day, find ways to identify the most important.
4 Be realistic
Ask yourself: “What am I really worrying about/what is the worst that could happen?” Often we find that we simply have things out of perspective.
5 Be positive
Stress-resistant people are usually positive in their attitudes. When things change, see these as opportunities for development.
6 Learn to relax
It is vital to have a period of relaxation every day. Relaxing aids physical health and puts stressful events into perspective.
7 Know your limits
Avoid agreeing to something because it seems a simple solution or avoids having to say no.
8 Set personal goals
Try to make sure that part of your work day takes you towards the goals. Review them with your manager so that they can help.
9 Live in the present
Stress is often caused by fear of the future. Live for the present.
10 Don’t hesitate to seek help
The support of others is essential in effective stress management. Talk with your manager, friends and colleagues.
Stress can appear differently in individuals and groups.
Signs of stress in an individual
● Disappointment with yourself, feeling withdrawn.
● Mood swings, increased emotional reactions – more tearful, sensitive or aggressive.
● Loss of motivation, commitment and confidence.
● Confusion, indecision.
● Poor memory, difficulty in concentrating.
● Changes in eating habits; increased smoking, drinking or drug-taking “to cope”.
● Changes in sleep patterns.
● Changes in attendance such as arriving later or taking more time off.
Signs of stress in a group
● Disputes and disaffection within the group.
● Increase in staff turnover.
● Increase in complaints and grievances.
● Increased reports of stress and sickness absence.
● Difficulty in attracting new staff.
● Poor performance; customer dissatisfaction or complaints.
Source: Health and Safety Executive
Case study: Insist on support when stress becomes too much
Jeanne James, assistant team manager in a local authority child care team in England, reflects on a highly stressful beginning to her social work career, and offers advice to other social workers suffering from stress.
“I had worked for my local authority for 10 years and was a team manager in adult services when I qualified as a social worker in 2006 through an employment-based training route.
I was placed in a child care team and my induction lasted all of five minutes: my manager explained that a student placement I had already completed would suffice; any other queries, I should ask my busy colleagues.
By the end of my first fortnight as a newly qualified social worker I had 23 cases, including five classed as child protection work despite having had no specialist training in this area.
After four months I told my manager that I felt overwhelmed, I was working 10 hours a day but still felt unable to manage the complexities of the cases. She said that she thought I was managing very well.
I became increasingly tearful and anxious at work and frequently woke in the night, worrying that I had not done this or that. I went to see my GP when on leave. He recognised the symptoms as stress-related and signed me off work – I was off for three months in total.
I wrote to the council’s director of children’s services raising my concerns. This letter set me on a long and painful journey of a grievance, which unbeknown to me at the time would last four years. When I returned to work my managers were extremely defensive; not only did they fail to follow the recommendations of my GP and their occupational health adviser, but I was advised that social work “probably wasn’t for me” and yet I still found myself with a high caseload within four weeks of returning.
I left the council in 2009. I took my former employers to a tribunal which was eventually settled out of court in March 2010.
I was happy to have the acknowledgement that they had failed to follow correct procedures in supporting staff who suffer from stress. I have learned that, since my departure, they have improved support for newly qualified social workers.
In my new role I ensure that all my staff are properly trained and supported and keep an eye out for the symptoms of stress; I offer advice and follow the in-house guidelines rather than let them gather dust on a shelf.
I knew the role of a social worker would be challenging. What I was not prepared for was the lack of support and the negative response when I confessed I could not.
Council strategy wins praise from Health and Safety Executive
A pioneering approach towards tackling workplace stress among social workers at North Lanarkshire Council has been praised by the Health and Safety Executive.
The council’s employee well-being strategy, launched in 2008, combined staff surveys with online chat rooms and focus groups to identify the causes of stress, which were then addressed by joint action from staff and managers. As a result sickness absence rates fell from 12% to 6%.
Here is a selection of questions from an employee self-assessment form for measuring stress, which asked staff to describe any problems relating to each category, and what could be done to solve it.
● Do different people at work demand things from you that are hard to combine?
● Do you have unachievable deadlines?
● Do you have to work very intensively?
● Do you feel you have a choice in deciding how you do your work?
● Do you get the respect at work you deserve from your colleagues?
● Are you clear about what is expected of you at work?
● Are you clear about the goals and objectives for your team?
● Does your manager give you enough supportive feedback on the work you do?
● Do you feel you could rely on your manager to help you with a work problem?
Source: North Lanarkshire Council
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