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.