How stress impacts social workers – and how they’re trying to cope

Employers have a duty of care to their staff but our research suggests they're too often falling short, write Oliver Beer and Sheena Asthana

Picture: Markus Mainka/Fotolia

by Oliver Beer and Sheena Asthana

There’s little debate over social work’s status as a stressful profession. Social workers practise in an increasingly difficult environment characterised by rising demands, diminishing resources and negative scrutiny from the media.

Recent surveys by the British Association of Social Workers and Community Care suggest workloads have increased, working conditions have deteriorated and stress levels have escalated as a result.

Stress is associated with both short and long-term health problems. On the one hand, it can contribute immediately to ill health by promoting damaging behaviours such as excess alcohol consumption and drug misuse. On the other, chronic stress is known to produce metabolic changes relating to cholesterol levels, obesity and an increased risk of coronary heart disease, as well as having other knock-on effects such as depression and poorer immune function.

It’s therefore important to acknowledge the health risks of social work, a profession that has long been associated with stress, depression and burnout.

As part of our recent research, we have examined responses to stress by 427 social workers employed in England across 88 local authorities as well in the private and third sectors.

Participants were asked whether they had used alcohol or illegal drugs, or turned to emotional eating, over the past 12 months in order to cope with stress. We also asked whether they had displayed characteristics (difficulties in sleeping, emotional exhaustion, burnout) of chronic stress.

Risky behaviours

Emotional eating is defined as the tendency to eat unnecessary food as a response to negative emotions or psychological stress. Known health risks of such ‘binge’ eating include raised blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels and an increased risk of heart disease, type II diabetes mellitus and gall bladder disease.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents said they had used emotional eating as a mechanism to cope with work-related stress, a similar proportion to that found in previous research (60%) by Community Care. Neither individual (such as gender and age) nor team/client group characteristics were particularly associated with emotional eating.

Over a third (35%) of social workers in our sample reported using alcohol to cope with work-related stress. Practitioners aged 40-49 had the highest usage (39%) and men reported higher levels of alcohol use (45%) than women (33%). Sector-wise we found the highest levels of alcohol consumption among those working in learning disability (54.5%) and children’s services permanency and transition teams (52.6%).

Six percent of respondents had used drugs in the past 12 months to cope with work-related stress. The most popular drug was marijuana with 15 participants stating they had used it. Other drug choices included MDMA (ecstasy), cocaine, and codeine.

Neither individual characteristics nor team/client group ones were positively associated with drug use. The results may have been affected by social desirability bias – respondents being cautious about admitting to what may be construed as ethical misconduct.

Asking questions about drug use among respondents’ colleagues may present a different picture. One social worker who agreed to a semi-structured interview told us they were aware of their manager and several colleagues using marijuana in the past.

Unable to cope

Excessive and prolonged stress is a risk factor for longer term chronic disease. We found high levels of chronic stress according to a range of indicators. Nearly two-thirds (63%) of respondents had difficulties sleeping, 56% said that they were emotionally exhausted and 75% said they were concerned about burnout.

Worryingly, 35% already felt unable to cope at work and 15% currently take, or have taken within the past 12 months, anti-depressant medication as a result of their social work role.

These research findings suggest that there are significant levels of chronic stress among social workers and of emotional eating and alcohol usage as a mechanism to cope with work-related stress. Although some drug use was reported among practitioners, it appears to be low-level and in line with national estimates (drug misuse findings from the 2015/16 Crime Survey for England and Wales, for instance, revealed that 8.4% of all adults aged 16-59 had used an illicit drug in the past year).

Social workers’ employers have a duty of care to protect them from work-related stress and the associated health risks. Our study suggests far more needs to be done to fulfill this obligation.
Oliver Beer is a registered social worker and Sheena Asthana is professor of health at the University of Plymouth. The research was undertaken to further examine and understand the causes and predictors of stress among social workers as part of Oliver’s MsC in social research methods.

More from Community Care

11 Responses to How stress impacts social workers – and how they’re trying to cope

  1. Deanna September 28, 2016 at 1:06 pm #

    Whilst this is extremely informative, I’ve yet to see information that states, alongside work stress, some social workers have complex home lives too ie child with autism, behaviour difficulties, caring for a relative with dementia.. This is what is often unsupported as well as the stress of work. It’s presumed that it’s solely work based stress, but it’s not always in isolation.. Often having home life stress is frowned upon because professionals need resilience.. There is actually very little understanding by the profession, which is very saddening

  2. paul owen September 28, 2016 at 2:39 pm #

    Very true Deanna.

    I would also suggest that we include the unqualified Child and Family workers in the above article many of whom hold very similar responsibilities as their qualified colleagues. Including writing and presenting Section 37 and 7 reports for Court (without Legal representation), holding multiple LAC and CIN cases, at times holding CP cases, under someone else’s name most of time with them not being available. We have C and F workers holding 34 cases with limited oversight apart for other colleagues when they are available.
    By unqualified I mean that they don’t have a full Social Work qualification. Some of our workers have been around for 14+ years, have BTECH HNC, Access, NVQ 3 and Access, one also has a counselling/pastoral care qualification and passed the first part of the Social Work Degree before home situations caused them to drop out. And all for Grade 7 pay

  3. Rachel Smith September 30, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

    Although, I agree that Child and Family workers may face stress in the work the do. Social workers are constantly bashed by the press, which heightens the stress on the profession massively. Further to this, Social workers are held accountable and have so much to loose when a mistake is made. Experience is important. However, so is a standardised qualification!

  4. Sabine September 30, 2016 at 2:36 pm #

    Sadly, the findings of this survey/report do not surprise me in the least. Employers will shamelessly use emotional blackmail to get staff to work when they should really rest or have done more than enough.

    Some appear surprised when reminded of their duty of care. I find more frequently that it appears to be deemed okay if people work until they reach a stage of being ill, but when this then turns to long-term sick, then they are very likely to face Attendance review meetings.

    Most will go back when really not ready, because of a feeling of duty and loyalty.

  5. Sandy October 2, 2016 at 12:18 am #

    Most employers do not care about social workers or whether their under stress it’s about ensuring social workers get the work done regardless even if that meant working long hours after work or giving up your weekends to do work. This is even worst when your a locum as some employers expectations towards locums are extremly unrealistic.

    Some are also now restricting social workers to take toil even when you have worked over and above normal working hours. I think this should be against the law.

    • Sandy October 2, 2016 at 12:20 am #

      Not to take toil

  6. Oluyemisi Omonijo October 2, 2016 at 1:42 pm #

    As i was reading everybody’s valuable opinions as above, what was running through my mind was that shouldn’t the social work organisations be formulating contingent plans to support their workers?

    My belief is that the workers ought to be supported with reduction of work load. Otherwise it could interfere with how they implement efficient intervention with service users.

  7. rebecca gaffney October 3, 2016 at 3:41 pm #

    should the fact social workers are taking illegal drugs and some taking anti depressants raise any concerns????

    • CT October 3, 2016 at 7:02 pm #

      Since 1 in 3 people experiences depression in their life time taking anti depressants is not uncommon and probably shouldn’t be in the same sentence as illegal drugs?

  8. paul owen October 5, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

    Rachel. Do you not think that CFW’s are also held accountable? If that’s the case you are sadly mistaken.

  9. Tom Dobbie October 7, 2016 at 9:08 pm #

    The stress put on a child and siblings and parents and grandparents is extreme and goes on for years ….when the social workers get it wrong.
    Given the high levels of stress and distress and overwork by social workers, there are remarkably few wrongdoings by them reported.
    As sir James Munby reports , the large increase in children taken, points strongly to large numbers of children being taken for the wrong reasons; but it is all hushed up.