Coping with workplace stress, restructuring and bullying

Marcia Lawrence-Russell, who heads the British Association of Social Workers' advice and representation service, describes the big issues facing social workers so far this year: stress, restructuring and bullying and harassment

 Rising caseloads have contributed to workplace stress

Marcia Lawrence-Russell, who heads the British Association of Social Workers’ advice and representation service, describes the big issues facing social workers so far this year: stress, restructuring and bullying and harassment

BASW’s advice and representation (A&R) service has a team of officers stationed throughout the UK, each of whom are registered social workers with particular geographical and practice-based specialisms. In addition to this, we operate a duty line, which members are encouraged to call in order to determine the best way to proceed or simply to seek advice or reassurance.

Under the current austerity measures, we have seen a significant increase in referrals; we currently have over 200 active cases and deal with more than a thousand each year. The variety of the cases has shifted of late so, for example, we now deal with far more managers and senior managers. Everyone is feeling the effects of budget cuts and changes to terms and conditions.

It is often impossible to pinpoint the direct cause and effect relationship of a referral: cuts lead to redundancies, which lead to increased workloads, which leads to low morale, which leads to stress, which leads to absence, which leads to further increased workloads. You can refigure the equation in a number of ways, but it is clear that social workers are under significant, and increasing, pressure.

Broadly speaking, however, the three interlinked issues that we most often encounter are restructuring, stress and bullying.


At the moment, many social workers are having to re-interview for their jobs, often against a backdrop of redundancies, increased workloads, unfilled vacancies and an erosion of their terms and conditions. This process can be demoralising, confusing and frightening, even for experienced workers or those who have undergone similar turmoil in the past. An increasing number of members contact us regarding the legality of certain procedures and the technicalities surrounding issues such as redundancy, notice and Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations (Tupe).

If you are undergoing structural changes to your employment, it is important to seek advice as soon as possible. Advice and representation officers or union representatives will then be able to determine whether an employer has abided by the letter of the law (a worrying amount do not) and ensure that your situation is dealt with fairly, transparently and with legal equity.


Stress has always been an issue within the profession, but there is little doubt that, for a variety of reasons, it is on the rise – over half of all our referrals are related to stress in the workplace.

Unfortunately, social workers suffering from stress often carry on too long before adequately addressing the problem. They may feel tremendous loyalty and dedication to service users and to the cases they are involved with, and are therefore reluctant to put themselves first. Although such dedication is admirable, in the long term it is the wrong approach. Failure to manage your own well-being can often lead to absence, burn out or dangerous practice.

Again, it is vital that you seek professional support as soon as possible. Beyond this, it is a good idea to notify your line manager or HR department about your situation in writing, giving regular updates about the degree of your discomfort and your sense of how it could best be alleviated. In the event of a tribunal, having written evidence that your situation was not dealt with appropriately can often be extremely valuable.

Bullying and harassment

This is an area where we have seen a significant increase over the last year. In many cases, we observe a “trickle-down” effect from managers to their respective staff groups; managers are under increased pressure, and those below them are forced to bear the brunt. This process can sometimes lead to unwarranted disciplinary procedures and a tense and unworkable environment.

The nature of such cases has meant that, as well as the number of our referrals increasing, the interdependence, length and complexity of cases has also been on the rise.

If you feel you are a victim of bullying or harassment, try to learn about the procedures and legislation that are already in place where you work. This may take the form of a specific bullying policy, or more general grievance procedures.

Advice and representation service

The advice and representation service’s approach is rooted in best practice. The team aims to use its specialist knowledge to provide a workplace context for any given dispute. Its members use their social work training to avoid escalation and work with an external law firm to keep up to date with current case law and legal precedent.

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This article is published in the 27 October 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Stress levels on the rise”

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