Hotdesking can add to social worker stress, study finds

Researchers find lack of desks, noisy open plan offices, ineffective IT systems and a lack of parking are compounding an already stressful job

Hotdesking and poorly designed workplace environments can contribute to the stress on child and family social workers, according to a new study.

Researchers at the Centre for Research on Children and Families found the lack of a desk for social workers to return to after often difficult home visits added to their sense of “emotional disorientation”, left them without a physical “secure base” to work from, and could reduce chances to interact with colleagues.

The report said: “Increasing uncertainty into a role, which is already dealing with high levels of uncertainty with their cases, will increase levels of stress. Reducing opportunities for working and meeting with colleagues takes away an important buffer of stress in this profession.”


The study, which involved a survey of 209 child and family social workers and a series of focus group interviews, looked at the determinants of stress and burnout.

It concluded employers should prioritise improvements to workplace environments and support for individual social workers, after finding participants were often “struggling with the demands of a large, complicated and ever changing workload” and facing high caseloads and paperwork.

As well as hotdesking, other workplace factors found to have contributed to the emotional demands included noisy open plan offices, ineffective IT systems and practical issues such as the removal of parking near social work offices. Participants said each of these issues in themselves could potentially be overcome but the cumulative effect created an added strain on top of an already demanding job.

Social workers frequently had to “contain” their own emotional responses to the work they did with families experiencing distress and trauma, the study found. This took a lot of emotional and energy and was complicated by the “every present tension” between protecting the child and acknowledging the distress of parents, it added.


Laura Biggart, one of the study’s authors, told Community Care: “Social workers are dealing with a lot of dysfunctional and traumatised children and families. That work will cause anybody to get stressed, because it is a stressful job.

“Things like hotdesking make a difficult job harder to do. Hotdesking in and of itself is not necessarily the cause of stress, it will differ from workplace to workplace. In some places it might work well, particularly if you’ve consulted the people working there, but in other places it might not work well at all. The key thing is consulting the people who are going to be working in that way.”

Biggart said employers should look to recognise the “emotional nature of the job” facing social workers and put in prevention measures.

“I know a lot of local authorities have employee assistance schemes but that’s often after the stress has happened. Where possible if they can put in support and try and make sure social workers get reflective supervision, that would really help them sustain themselves.”

The findings from the survey and focus groups will also be used in the development of a “social work practice tool” to help social workers reflect on practice.

Biggart said the practice tool, expected to be finished next year, is something social workers could use “particularly at the beginning of their careers to think about a particular element of their practice”.

“It gives them a structured framework to think about their practice. They could rate themselves or get people they are working with to rate themselves on particular aspects to provide a forum for discussion on developing best practice,” Biggart added.

Not listened to

The research also found a perception among social workers that senior managers did not listen to their concerns and prioritised paperwork and resource targets over families. While many said they received good support from some peers and supervisors, they highlighted how high staff turnover contributed to a frequent lack of support.

“Participants also reported that managing expectations from other professionals was emotionally demanding. Other professionals often misunderstood the scope of social workers’ role and responsibilities, alongside having a lower threshold of risk,” the report said.

A pressure from the media and outside organisations had created “organisational cultures which seek to monitor social work activity in order to be able to target blame”, social workers told researchers.

How social workers managed the boundary between personal and professional lives was “emotionally challenging because of the frequency with which social workers are dealing with conflict”.

Despite the challenges, social workers reported how making a difference was very rewarding, and receiving positive feedback from service users, colleagues, supervisors, managers and other professionals “made a big difference”.

The research recommended that social workers identify what they find emotionally rewarding and celebrate things done well.

“Remember that none of us are emotionally invincible or all-knowing, therefore thinking about using engaged coping strategies can be helpful when we feel overwhelmed,” the research recommended.

It also said that senior managers “should aim to create a positive emotional climate” and identify factors that are causing stress in the workplace.

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14 Responses to Hotdesking can add to social worker stress, study finds

  1. Janet Goddard August 5, 2016 at 11:36 am #

    I think this is absolutely true…and some that ‘hotdesk’ feel entirely undervalued. As people often find security in ‘their’ space, forcing them to share it, and to be effectively’ weekend’s is never going to be a good idea…especially when their job can be very challenging on so many fronts.

  2. Megan August 5, 2016 at 6:28 pm #

    This is a problem in social work in general, not unique to children and families work. The issues described in this article are all present in my team in adults services. Employers sell it as enabling social workers to work more flexibly, but it destroys team and professional identity, and undervalues staff (how much do you really value a social worker if you can’t/ won’t provide a fixed workspace for them?)

  3. Jo August 5, 2016 at 8:26 pm #

    Totally agree! However in my experience management do not care about how the staff feel. I worked in a mental health team and during one of my rare and worthless supervisions, I cried over the general stress I was feeling due to “hot desking”, overload of clients, ridiculous parking arrangements which had been compounded by the sudden death of a client, to be told by my “manager” that “maybe this job isn’t for you “……. this said by a manager who had admitted she was only “staying for her pension”……

  4. Bill Garnett August 5, 2016 at 8:46 pm #

    the stress of social work is something that can be ameliorated through the support, often informal, or peer colleagues. The chance to debrief and make sense of events…or indeed to pre-plan and chat through an approach…is a fundamental part of support to each other. The absence of a an office space and opportunity to share concerns and anxieties isolates individuals and their decision making. This is adding a further burden on an already stressful occupation…the practical difficulties of being an office nomad..with no space to call an office…is a further additional stressor…forever on the move…these conditions are just not appropriate…for any type of social workers…

  5. edna cloud August 5, 2016 at 9:16 pm #

    I wholeheartedly agree with the findings of this study and no, senior managers do not listen, with the message relayed as ‘suck it up’!!

  6. Carrie Wheeler August 5, 2016 at 10:20 pm #

    The bleeding obvious – can we just conclude that local authorities truly dislike having to provide a social service, so make it as unpleasant as possible and just get to grips with that please?

  7. Josephine August 5, 2016 at 11:37 pm #

    This applies to all social workers which ever field they work in !
    Having no desk and space of your own adds to a sense of being unvalued. Costs are more important than worth! This combined with poor pay and reducing employment conditions…. its no wonder there’s a retention problem!

  8. Andy Faulkner August 6, 2016 at 8:32 am #

    I really hope these “researchers” don’t get paid for stating the bleeding obvious!

    Of course hot desking increases stress. You have no area/space/storage to call your own; you are made to feel like a transient; you have a lowered perception of your worth to the company/authority and you don’t form any sort of emotional/work related attachment to your office/workspace.

    Hot desking was introduced for one reason and one reason only, to save companies money. They don’t care about the effects it had/has on workers morale, only on how much money they can save.

    Until social work managers and departmental heads really start to trust social workers and bring in true agile working (where social workers can work from home and not be concerned that their manager is constantly checking up on them) then having a PERMANENTLY allocated workspace is the only way to make a member of staff feel wanted and appreciated.

  9. Andy Faulkner August 6, 2016 at 8:44 am #

    “The research also found a perception among social workers that senior managers did not listen to their concerns and prioritised paperwork and resource targets over families.”

    This is not a ‘perception’ this is a fact. I left social work after a few months because I was constantly ignored by my manager, my ASYE mentor and senior management over my caseload concerns.

    I was a NQSW at a local authority (that rhymes with Handwell) and I had just been put on the ASYE scheme. I was supposed to have a reduced caseload of a maximum of 12 for the first three months, rising by 2 every three months to a full caseload. When I left I had EIGHTEEN cases and had just been told that I was being assigned 2 more by the end of that month; this was after being on the ASYE for THREE WEEKS!

    My senior managers response to my concerns? “You’ve been allocated the cases and they’re staying with you, the ASYE is only ‘recommendations’ and we can ignore them!”

    Because the authority had had such a poor Ofsted they had sacked all of the agency workers but were too cheap to hire any replacements; so the ‘management’ doled out their cases to anyone they could, regardless of their experience, training or capacity to cope.

  10. Tom J August 8, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    Prior to my authority introducing hot desking we were all invited to a hot desking workshop.

    I attended and raised my significant concerns (as outlined in this article) and I was told that I was struggling with the idea of change and I needed to improve my capacities in dealing with change.

    Needless to say I was not impressed with this piece of pseudo science 🙂 and I still hold that hot desking has not been a good thing.

    Most importantly- having trusted colleagues to sit and talk to when you get back from a difficult visit is of central importance.

  11. Andrea August 8, 2016 at 11:39 am #

    Carrie – LOL! precisely, it really is all rollocks – understand also Toms frustration – the spiel given for ‘change’ is so insulting it amazes me that anyone buys into it EVER!!

  12. Ellie August 10, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    I’m baffled! Could somebody – ANYBODY – please answer me this… Just HOW MUCH did it cost to commission and carry out this perfectly useless piece of research that does nothing other than state the blatantly obvious? I ask you – “money for old rope”, if ever there was! I can well imagine that the money could have been far better spent upon Social Care – upon improving the working conditions of Social Workers.

    Have Social Workers not been saying for some considerable time, now, that things such as “hotdesking”, poor parking facilities, lack of adequate supervision, underresourced or inadequate office facilities, noise, and lack of opportunities for peer support (amongst other things) are contributing to making Social Work a difficult job to do? As far as I am aware, such issues have been pointed out time and time gain by Social Workers in the job. So WHY is it that nobody actually listens to THEM? Would it not make more sense – and cost a darned site less (which I would have thought common sense in a time of “austerity”) – to go straight to the proverbial horse’s mouth for information? Social Workers are, in the main, neither voiceless nor brainless… So, allow them to use their voices, and to offer their insights.

    Oh! HOW I can relate to poor Andy Faulkner’s experience! I know just what it feels like to have started a new job under less than auspicious circumstances. Mine was in a Hospital Discharge Team (I had worked previously in Mental Health Services, a job that I loved) – I only made the move to the Hospital Team because it was closer to home, and at the time, my immediate family had recently experienced several crises. My father-in-law had died, my mother needed a double knee replacement, hubby and I had just moved house, and I was being investigated for fertility problems that turned out to be Endometriosis! So, I already had a lot on my plate both emotionally and physically, outside of work. The new job that I started in was plain awful. I was not given the most effective induction (and that’s being polite). I was the ONLY member of the team not to have my own desk and computer (although one other Social Worker in the team had a computer simply because he had brought a laptop with him from a previous job)! I had to wait MONTHS after starting for vital training such as health and safety, a fire lecture, and I.T. update. And I had NO protected caseload whatsoever.

    Yes, I raised concerns. THAT did NOT go down well with management. After a protracted period of time a computer WAS dumped on a desk for me – but it wasn’t even connected! Raising concerns just got me bullied at work. I put in a formal grievance against my line manager (who was, incidentally a Nurse, not even a Social Worker anyway – we were supposed to be an “integrated team” – and he RESIGNED rather than face it! Which kind of left me half feeling like I lacked closure, and half feeling vindicated because had he not been guilty of bullying, he would not have resigned.

    I’ve learned from that. A job in which one feels comfortable and happy is one in which one feels valued, supported, rewarded for the work you do. One where you get regular training as required, and regular supervision. One where you have all the resources you need, and do not have to fight to get your work done, because of things like “hotdesking”. One where your team truly do feel like a team – integrated, connected, and willing to share peer support. One where you aren’t pressured all the time by budget constraints, time constraints, resource deficiencies. One where there is no conflict between cost-cutting and providing a good service. One where your career progression is encouraged and nurtured, and which you have full control over. One where what you bring to the job in terms of your individual skills, talents, experience and qualifications is truly valued. Isn’t that what ALL Social Workers deserve?

  13. Janice August 11, 2016 at 12:51 am #

    So difficult has it been to find a parking space that I once had to cover duty phone calls from my car in a side street until a space became available. Having finally got into the office and not found a free desk I ended up in the very noisy canteen of the remote business park where I work and could hear precisely nothing of phone calls I received. Easier to and dispense with going into office to work at all it would save the hassle and wasted time .Worse still- should I wish to see a client urgently outside of their home it is necessary to drive a further mile to another building and hope a room and parking space is available. Easier to meet them in a coffee shop The ‘office’ as such is only really a large call centre where no one seems to know anyone leave alone whether they are ok or need a de -brief.

  14. Paul Owen August 11, 2016 at 10:04 am #

    Well it’s hardly a shock is it. The only surprise is that anyone paid to have a survey done on what is blatantly obvious. I’ve spent 16 years working for the ‘department’, can’t get a space to work, can’t park near my office, have to ask people to be quiet before I can hear a telephone call. Working on Frameworki which is my 5th recording system, this breaks down three or four times a week.
    If I want to work at home I need to ask permission, say what I’m going to be doing and give a reason why I can’t do this in the office.
    Three offices in West Sussex, meeting families is nearly impossible as the meeting rooms are pre-booked months ahead. 31 cases
    Thankfully only two years to retirement but I don’t think I’m going to last in a department that doesn’t care or support