The results of Community Care’s research into the number of social workers currently suffering moderate to severe stress are alarming, but not surprising. Year-on-year budget cuts have resulted in fewer social workers and higher caseloads. The need to save money has resulted in restructuring, redeployments and redundancies, creating an environment of anxiety and uncertainty. For both social workers and their managers, revised eligibility criteria means saying, “sorry, we can’t help” to increasing numbers of vulnerable people and their carers. This is frustrating and emotionally draining because frontline staff can see the need, but are powerless to do anything about it.
This cocktail of frustration, anxiety, uncertainty and unrelenting pressure is what the findings from Community Care stress survey reflect. Staff recognise it not just them; their colleagues and their managers also work in the same stressful environment – but this is not a reason to grin and bear it. We all need the support of colleagues, our managers, friends and family when we are feeling stressed. So how can stress within an organisation be reduced and what can managers do to help?
Even in an organisation where morale is very low and stress levels are high, some staff will still be enjoying work. These are the people who work in a team where everyone gets along, who feel supported and valued by their manager and find satisfaction in their work. This is despite their feelings about senior management, politicians, or the negative portrayal of their profession in the press.
Managers can clearly influence whether individuals feel valued. It’s part of a manager’s job to maintain good working relations within the team and allocate work in a way that increases job satisfaction. There are more cases to allocate and fewer social workers to allocate them to, so there needs to be a change in expectation about how much can be done and when cases can be closed. Don’t put a stop to the non-essential, but highly rewarding activities; we all need something to look forward to.
Senior managers feel the pressure, too. They can respond to staff stress by simply saying, “well that’s the reality, get used to it” or they can recognise the pressures. As a senior manager, it is tempting to avoid situations where you know staff are simply going to have a long moaning session. Tempting, but not appropriate. It is also tempting to drop time-consuming face-to-face activities with staff, like shadowing a social worker or visiting day centres. Effective communication can reduce people’s feelings of uncertainty and anxiety about the future, but only if senior managers can demonstrate they have an insight into what is happening on the frontline.
One practical thing social workers and their managers can do to ease the stress is join a trade union. In the current financial climate, trade unions are often dismissed as lacking power, but the union voice is going to be heard where an individual’s is ignored. If unions lack authority, it is only because membership in most authorities has fallen below 50%. As a senior manager, I can tell you unions are a lot more effective at getting councillors and senior managers to think again than they care to admit.
Finally a seasonal tip to all managers: if your organisation is still one of those that produce a corporate Christmas card, don’t send it to your staff. Send everyone you directly manage a card you have bought with your own money and write inside a personal message thanking them for their hard work and support over a difficult 12 months. It’s the least you can do.
Blair McPherson is a former director of community services and an author and blogger on the public sector