Enforce the employer standards to reduce social worker stress

Social work academic Martin Webber questions why the employer standards are so underused when they could help tackle burnout

Photo: Ray Bouknight/ flickr

By Martin Webber

Social workers experience high levels of stress and burnout. 80% of over 2,000 social workers polled by Community Care in 2014 believed that stress was affecting their ability to do their job. This has been found in repeated surveys over the last 20 years, but the problem seems to be getting worse.

Published by the Local Government Association on behalf of the Social Work reform partners, the  Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England are indicative of good practice in the employment of social workers. 

Voluntary standards

Yet these standards remain voluntary, despite the fact that making them mandatory could contribute to reducing stress and burnout in the profession- problems that lead to a vicious circle of high vacancy rates, higher caseloads and increased pressure.

In summary, there are eight Standards:

1. Clear social work accountability framework
2. Effective workforce planning
3. Safe workloads and case allocation
4. Managing risks and resources
5. Effective and appropriate supervision
6. Continuing professional development
7. Professional registration
8. Effective partnerships

Reducing burnout

The substantial evidence base about the causes and correlates of stress among social workers provide some clues about how stress and burnout can be reduced. 

Research tells us that caseload size and the complexity of work undertaken is associated with higher levels of stress in social work. Statutory work, such as in mental health or children and families social work, is a particular source of stress. This leads to a high turnover of practitioners – particularly in children and families teams – but also the development of resiliency in experienced practitioners.

Safe workloads

Social worker stress can be reduced if caseload sizes are appropriate for the experience of the worker and the complexity of roles they are expected to undertake. The enforcement of the standard that enforces safe workloads and case allocation would mean that both practitioners and service users could be protected from the harm caused by excessive workloads.

Working environments which promote peer support, value the contributions of social workers and encourage practitioners to voice their concerns can help to alleviate social work stress. However, the culture of fear which is pervasive in social work offices does not promote conducive working environments.  The standard which promotes managing risks and resources  requires employers to foster a culture of openness to empower social workers to make appropriate professional judgements and to raise concerns without fear of recrimination. If this were made mandatory it would make a significant contribution to alleviating social worker stress.

Age of austerity

Research findings indicate, too, that social work stress is caused by having insufficient resources to do the job. This is becoming an increasing problem in the age of austerity where it is commonplace to be working with minimal local authority resources and restricted voluntary sector capacity. At the most basic level, social workers need to have the practical tools to do their jobs. Again, enforcing the standard around managing resources will go some way to ensure this.

Practitioners not receiving reflective supervision are at higher risk of stress and burnout. Standard 5 requires employers to provide professional supervision by a registered social worker which meets their learning and development needs. This is not occurring in many teams, placing practitioners at a higher risk of burnout from stress.

Reductions in public expenditure have caused increasing social work caseloads and reductions in the number of practitioners. Enforcing the Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England will not solve this problem, but it will certainly go some way towards mitigating many of the causes of stress among social workers. So why, when we have this weapon in our arsenal, are we leaving it to rust?

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