Social worker took own life after stress caused by work arrangements, coroner rules

Inquest told the social worker developed severe depression as a result of work pressures

Cockermouth, Cumbria, where an inquest found social worker Annie Peel had taken her own life because of work pressures (image: Tim Herrick)

A senior social worker took her own life after changes at work triggered a severe depression, a coroner’s inquest has been told.

At the inquest, coroner Nicholas Shaw concluded that 66-year-old social worker Annie Peel from Cumbria developed a “severe agitated depression” as a consequence of “stress brought on by changed working arrangements”.

This led to her displaying “strong suicidal ideation”, the inquest record added, and despite interventions by mental health services and the “devoted and intense support of her family”, Peel took her own life in March 2017.

Local paper, the News and Star, reported that the inquest was also told members of Peel’s family had pleaded for an emergency assessment two days before her death.

An informal action plan was drawn up for Peel to help address “competency issues” while employed as a social worker in Cumbria council’s children’s services, but she had seen this as an attack on her credibility and instead wanted to move to a lower graded job, the News and Star reported.

‘Overwhelmed by scrutiny’

The coroner heard how Peel had suffered from mental health issues before, a stress-related illness in 2004 and anxiety and depression in 2008.

In a statement to the coroner, Peel’s service manager said there had been an audit highlighting concerns about some of her cases, which had upset her despite her welcoming the feedback.

A consultant who had seen Peel told the coroner she was affected by increased work pressure, two complaints against her and a new line manager she did not like.

‘High level of pressure’

During the period between 2015 and 2018, Cumbria’s children’s services was considered ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted before moving to a ‘requires improvement’ rating this year.

The council’s deputy chief executive and corporate director for the people directorate, John Macilwraith, said: “We consider the health and wellbeing of all of our staff, including social workers, to be of the utmost importance. Public sector workers continue to be under a high level of pressure, not least due to the difficult financial climate in which they operate.”

Macilwraith added: “In Cumbria, we continue to prioritise and invest in the wellbeing of our workforce, and we have a number of policies and procedures in place to support our staff.  A confident and well-supported workforce is key to help us to meet our duty to deliver high quality services for those in need.

“There was a very difficult and complicated set of circumstances with Annie Peel, and our thoughts continue to be with her family and friends,” he said.

  • The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or at jo@samaritans.org 

41 Responses to Social worker took own life after stress caused by work arrangements, coroner rules

  1. Kim August 15, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

    My heart goes out to Annie’s family and friends who are those who are truly affected by this. They will mourn her loss, mourn the loss of the joy she brought, and forever miss her. This is the tragic truth about her death. Those who pressurised her into this will in the meantime get in an agency worker or new employee, to carry on her caseloads and work at the same frenzied pace that led to Annie’s decision making. This is tragic and when are we going to wake up and say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! Life is short, and precious, and we must change all this before more workers crumble under the pressures placed upon them. For myself this is the third worker, 2 who have taken their own lives, and the third who died from the pressures placed upon her. Something must be done. We are meant to be Social Workers and working in a caring profession, but instead we are working in a draconian environment that is only interested in timescales and the duty of care to workers consists of taking them down capabilities or threatening that route if they cannot keep up. When are the government going to recognise the impact of this upon front line staff! To all Social Workers I would say to you “enough is enough” and I would advise you to start fighting back. Refuse to work these imposed hours which are often double if not treble that which we are paid to work. Refuse to take on more cases. Refuse to fail children and families. And start standing up for yourselves and the profession and those with whom we work and provide the service. This cannot go on. How long before this is your reality too? For myself I have had to realise what is important, think upon those who will miss me when I’ve fallen under the trampling hooves of the raging bulls who continue to place pressure upon us. We must not allow this to continue. And the unions needs to stand alongside us in this. Enough is enough. May God pour out His Peace upon Annie’s family and loved ones at this awful time. Sad sad news.

    • Darcy August 16, 2018 at 11:33 am #

      So sad to learn of this. Condolences to Annie’s family. Her managers should be ashamed of themselves for contributing to her despair and isolation, which resulted in her feeling she could not go on.

      Social work is driven by a system that in reality opposes its core values, there is no empathy or support for workers. If you dare challenge managers you will find you are labelled a troublemaker and you become a target. This unethical behaviour and the unreasonable demands of the job causes mental torment to social workers and ultimately drives them out. There is no duty of care. Our emotional wellbeing and mental health are never assessed. The only care the LA’s have is that social workers have the ability to keep up performance, keep up with timescales, and work at least double their contracted hours for free.

    • Daisy August 16, 2018 at 11:53 am #

      I tried to fight back but ended up at a HCPC tribunal. They do not want to hear the truth, they believe everything the Local Authority alleges against you. I was suspended as they said I didn’t accept responsibility for my failings and tried to blame the LA. I fully accepted I was responsible for part of the charges, but the bulk of the allegations were carefully put together by bullying management to give a completely unbalanced view. The saddest thing for me is that other social workers knew this was happening and stood by and watched it happen. This is because they know if they speak out they will then be targeted too.

    • Ade August 16, 2018 at 5:26 pm #

      Agreed with the above comment.
      Social workers need to speak out and say Enough is Enough we cannot continue to be treated in this manner.
      May Annie’s soul rest in peace.

    • Patsy August 16, 2018 at 6:56 pm #

      Very well said. I’m so sad to read this for Annie and her family and friends. The poor identification of mental health support. Instead what I see is more of the same capability plans and unkind managers heaping pressure on social workers. Why on earth in the same way we have rules about class sizes why are there no minimum standards for social workers caseloads. It’s a disgrace that I hear too often. I’m writing this as a social work manager. I’ve worked with an excellent council (Walsall) who took this seriously and introduced a caseload promise. I applaud them and hope it’s still in place.
      What will it take? How many more Annie’s. I do think the ADCS have to take some responsibility for this as I don’t see them or the Chief Executives of local authorities standing up and fighting back. I’m thoroughly ashamed sometimes to be associated with my own profession for failing in its duty of care to its own staff and being so frightened of the bogey man (Ofsted) that they fail staff and in turn children. I agree enough is enough…

      • Just another social worker August 17, 2018 at 7:42 pm #

        No point having a caseload promise if they don’t stick to it. I too work 4 Walsall and was told they should never have made such a promise as it’s not realistic or workable.

        So…..????

        Your comment is awaiting moderation.

        • Retired August 22, 2018 at 1:18 pm #

          No Suprise there-unfortunately

  2. Daisy August 15, 2018 at 3:34 pm #

    Very sad. Condolences to her family.

    This happens all the time. Younger management often bully older experienced staff. My experience is that older staff are not wanted and they certainly are not supported.

    • Fiona simmons August 16, 2018 at 5:17 pm #

      Agree

    • Elaine August 23, 2018 at 12:50 pm #

      Agree… Happened to several people I know… and myself. So stressed at the time I for one didn’t see what was happening, just constantly reminded that case work not up to date, visiting after working hours in order to keep up targets, writing reports at home during “time off” the list is endless and the management uncaring and driven by targets..personally I was definately targeted and bullied by senior staff. Older social workers not respected for their vast knowledge and experience, more like ridiculed for finding fault with caseloads and long hours needed just to keep up! Everyone knows how impossible it is to keep the amount of cases managed to an acceptabke level… Not a thing done to alleviate the pressure this puts on workers.. All social workers not just older ones. Severe anxiety and depression was the outcome for myself, witch hunt till they had me on my knees and let go. I still have nightmares and panic attacks to this day about work and never being good enough or fitting in. Caring profession… I think not.. Very sad to hear, my condolences to her family and friends….. Reality check.. This so easily could have been me…

  3. Davcru August 15, 2018 at 4:58 pm #

    ” thoughts continue to be with Annie’s friends and family” – Her employers should be ashamed, Annie should never leave your thoughts, ever !

  4. Alaba Acbebe August 16, 2018 at 8:45 am #

    My condolence to the family of Ms Peel. Social workers are expected to put right all the society’s ills. They are the pig in the middle from their managers, IROs the familes and all other professional organisations. No matter how hard they work they can never do enough or receive the necessary support and appreciation for the work they do. As I fellow social worker I appreciate you rest in peace.

    • Alaba Acbebe August 16, 2018 at 9:07 am #

      My condolence to the family of Ms Peel. Social workers are expected to put right all the society’s ills. They are the pig in the middle from their managers, IROs the familes and all other professional organisations. No matter how hard they work they can never do enough or receive the necessary support and appreciation for the work they do. As I fellow social worker I appreciate you rest in peace.

  5. jim August 16, 2018 at 10:16 am #

    I once worked many years ago in the late 1980s early 1990s in a generic social work team in Middlesborough for 15 months then and then Stoke on Trent for around 13 months, and most of the prioriy was on children&families due to the legal pressures. Despite the fact that I was newly qualified I was in my first PQ year handling heavy end child protection cases within a few months of starting the job..with no real protection for me in terms of co-working and gradual integration. Both authorities found it so hard to recruit and retain social workers that thye just expected them to get on with it and any problems the focus was thrown back on the ‘competence’ of the worker..so I got out as it was just a horrible working existence..I went into a nice steady mental health sw job in a rural part of N. Ireland and then in Southern Ireland and I never went back to child protection work ever since as I knew then and now it is a grossly thankless, undermanned and underpaid part of social work.

    I would sooner labour on a building site all day [at age 57] or work in Tescos or claim the dole than face going into all that maelstrom and chaos which is the state of children and family work in the UK these days. Only when enough social workers combine and refuse to do many of those extra hours and extra cases or refuse to apply for the jobs will the system be forced to make a drastic change to prevent the deaths of workers like Annie Peel but I fear she will just be another statistic.

  6. sw111 August 16, 2018 at 11:39 am #

    My condolence to the family of Ms Peel. Who would have thought that worker who was committed to help others would be mauled by the management.
    It’s really sad that despite all these tragedies, there is not let up at all.
    Shame on the local authority’s actions that resulted in Ms Peel taking her life – it must have been sheer desperation.
    Authorities that are supposed to protect and safeguard are driving their workers towards such desperation without any qualms.
    Very very sad.

  7. Tom J August 16, 2018 at 12:15 pm #

    In addition to Samaritans please do consider speaking to your Trade Union rep; as well as offering a listening ear, they may also be able to offer support and guidance in resolving work stressors.

    • Anita Grangereau August 19, 2018 at 6:35 am #

      we are workers not slaves, this system is insane for our mental health and insane for families.

      I started social work in 78, I am now 60 y o ( in France), sick since 2014 from insane caseload, management and policies .
      it is most important to fight back, empower ourselves, complaining will get us nowhere. Go girls.

    • Eco-Social Worker August 21, 2018 at 8:59 am #

      Yes, speak to your union.

      If I am your Steward though I will probably say go off sick, take a break and look after yourself.

      Don’t carry on and do your mental health further damage or risk making a mistake that will end your career.

  8. Dindiho August 16, 2018 at 4:59 pm #

    What a needless death of a life well lived! Not surprising pressure and unwarranted criticism is the reason I no longer practise at the frontline in statutory social work. It is not worth it simple as. Kudos to those still in the game I know it is hell. Anyway at my age now I would be mad to consider returning, not that it has not crossed my mind, but stories like this are a stark reminder to me that nothing has changed and probably nothing will ever change. Nobody cares I don’t care how much they insist they are trying to make things better they are not. Just keeping themselves in jobs and not at the front line either so clueless as to what it is they want to change. Shame on them. Condolences to Ms Peel’s family.

  9. Anne Edwards August 16, 2018 at 5:28 pm #

    So very sorry about this tragic loss of life. I am sad for Ms Peel’s family, friends and colleagues. I can only echo the previous contributors who describe the frequently totally unreasonable pressures on social workers. Can there be anyone who has not experienced agonising panic attacks, huge anxiety and daily fear that something may go wrong. It is harder for older workers who may struggle more than younger people e.g. with computerised records or with the pace of work, especially if the person suffers from health issues ( more common as one ages) It’s a terrible shame that other assets such as experience and knowledge are not acknowledged as compensating for a need for more support in certain other areas. This is a general comment as I am not suggesting this applies to Ms Peel as I know nothing of the authority or her work. I should add from personal experience, first line managers also experience enormous pressures and overload. It’s about the whole ethos of the department/setting.

  10. Tracey Jones August 16, 2018 at 6:56 pm #

    It is very sad but not just limited to children’s services. Adult Social Care is so depleted of funds and staff that Social Workers are under constant immense pressure. Hospital teams in which I work are focused on getting people out irrelevant of if their safe. Pressure from above and those who shout loudest. No carers no money and few placements. I’m fast considering my options

    • Rob Bain August 21, 2018 at 3:02 pm #

      Tracey don’t leave. I am a duty hospital social worker and I agree with you that we are pressurised to discharge before it has been confirmed that it is safe to do so. I am regularly threatened by hospital managers with ‘escalating’ to senior managers my refusal to budge until I know it is safe to do so. My experience is that senior social work managers will back you. Fight the Power otherwise things won’t change. Annie was one of us and it is clear that we all feel her loss. the fact that there are so many responses is reassuring to me.

  11. Aunal August 16, 2018 at 10:04 pm #

    Very sad to know this.My heart goes out to Annie’s family and friends. We need to refuse more caseloads, refuse more work pressures and fight for more resources. We need to fight for more time with the family rather than staying in front of the computer preparing reports just for the sake of “tick boxes”. Enough is enough!

  12. Jenny Eckersley August 16, 2018 at 10:37 pm #

    My condolences to all the family and colleagues involed. I was off sick with stress twice in my 40 year career as children and families social worker, and as a mental health social worker. On each occasion I was subjected to bullying and telephone harassment by the two managers involved. Thank God I have retired now, with a decent pension. Some recompense which I guess this poor lass might not get. Wish there was more I could do. I am still a fighter

  13. Nell August 16, 2018 at 10:42 pm #

    My experience is that it is simply not true that employers care about the health of their staff. Ask anyone who has been through so called ‘sickness procedures’ wherein it is expected that staff who have been ill are reminded of the stress THEY cause their colleagues and the organisation when they take time off. Everything comes before the welfare of staff. The potential impact on that person is ignored. They may even be called out for not being tougher. To even consider capabilities for a staff member aged 66 is just brutal. Shame on them! Shame!

    • Nana Fremah-Miles August 17, 2018 at 4:30 pm #

      May the soul of Anne res in peace . My condolences to her entire family and friends . Social work is difficult and emotional job . However, time and time our own emotional wellbeing is not looked after by the systems that put us on scrutiny . We there not challenge pur managers with their draconian measures and where there is a disagreement with them . Systems does not back junior staff Where they are unhappy with senior management decisions and what they are being put through when there is a disagreement . Allowing systematic bullying to Junior staff without support of how things can be put right . It is always sad to know one of our colleagues have been put through such an enormous pressure and left alone to fight for her reputation leading to such a tragic death. Social work needs good reform in support of its staff in order to minimise such tragic loss and unnecessary stressors it’s staff are under .

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.

  14. Sandra Gilfillan August 18, 2018 at 7:22 am #

    I didn’t realize till I read the report that the BBC link to in the local paper, that Annie Peel was a Team Manager… and wanted to step down to a less demanding position. They preferred to put her through capability procedure.How was she meant to be supporting and supervising her team members through all this time? This could all have been me, but I didn’t choose to stay in an exposed role like Team Manager, I didn’t choose to stay as a hard pressed front line worker, and eventually I didn’t choose to stay in any local authority social work job. Life is different now, uncertain, challenging, but I’m not oppressed, shamed and harried on a daily basis. I’ve written more about this on the blog I’ve kept sporadically down the years.

  15. Stina Harvidsson August 19, 2018 at 7:08 am #

    This is very sad and my heart goes out to the family. It though also highlights the need for further funding of social services. I believe more education is needed especially on how domestic abuse works. I believe that if personnel truly understood how abuse works there would be fewer complaints. I would also urge that reports are read for corrections before send out.
    There should also be an in house or easy access to mental health for professionals such as Annie and if anyone reaches out for emergency assessment it should be immediate as an A&E where you do not leave until seen.

    Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    • Dee August 23, 2018 at 3:55 pm #

      Don’t understand relevance of your comments about DV Stina??.
      The plain n simple truth is that SW is undermanned for the plethora of tasks responsibilities and demands being passed down via government regs.
      Inexperienced and uncaring young managers are being recruited over more experienced staff because they r simply ambitious and will not challenge unreasonable demands on front line staff. Senior managers have held on to nice little niches for them and their ‘mates’ and only care about performance figures that will ensure they keep their jobs, get their bonuses and build up their pensions.
      I agree with all previous comments and can assure you from personal experience that there are hundreds of ‘Annies’ out there suffered and suffering……..We just have not heard about them yet.
      Oh and can someone tell me which SW Union does not work hand in glove with LA’s to further distress SW’s with HR procedures that are designed to protect the LA from litigation rather than really support staff?!!

      My heart goes out to the family

      • Pandora’s box August 24, 2018 at 7:28 pm #

        This covers it. Every word is true. Condolences to the family

  16. Arlene Jones August 20, 2018 at 10:25 am #

    Can I first start with my condolences to the family? It is so sad to hear that a colleague felt so defeated in a career that she felt the passion to continue for so many years. As a practitioner with over thirty years’ experience and a qualified systemic psychotherapist working agency, I am sad think that the multiple years of experience that Social Workers bring to the Local Authority can be undermined and less qualified practitioners feel threatened rather than embrace the skills that can be afforded to facilitate and empower their own practice.
    I am further concern to learn that bullying may be a contributory factor to someone feeling so distressed and disempowered that they ultimately saw no other way out but to take their life.
    Forgive me for saying but it is my understanding that one of the reasons for becoming Social Workers was to interrupt a system where our clients are rendered powerless on many levels so we can facilitate them to be powerful, surely that should apply to our colleagues.
    I have seen and evidence managers and colleagues who for what ever reason treat agency staff with contempt that turns into bullying in an attempt to de-skill them. I know all to well that when we bully others, in time it will come to us, so a word of warning take heed how you treat people as with the phrase “what goes around comes around “
    I want to say in my opinion that Annie was valued and a valuable member of the Social Work profession. Rest Annie after all your time and dedication that you have given to the Social Work profession on behalf of us all THANK YOU.!!!!!!!. Stay at peace rest in the arms of an angel.

  17. Joanna Wyatt August 22, 2018 at 10:21 am #

    I was a mental health social worker in Bristol but retired at 55 after only 10 years in the job. Restructuring, new legislation, new computer system which was not fit for purpose. For my last four years I was put into a generic team and sent out to assess people with physical health needs. I was so disempowered and went months without supervision. I was severely depressed and anxious for a few years so got out (fortunately my finances allowed me to) I was on a very dark place and if I continued could have been this poor lady. Been out of work for 18 months now and feeling better but still have dark days and lack confidence. It’s shocking how workers are treated. Senior management told me that I couldn’t have counselling for a second time, no doubt due to cost 😡

  18. Former social worker August 22, 2018 at 1:20 pm #

    My views/experiences echo all of the above comments. I was placed on a ‘performance improvement plan’ as I was struggling to keep on top of my workload. HR and managers need to realise how stressful it is to be placed under such scrutiny. In my opinion these performance monitoring plans are counter-productive, as you struggle to do your best when your confidence is being knocked by the very fact of being on this plan (and there is the threat of the plan being moved to formal disciplinary measures after a certain timescale). In my case I became physically ill as a result of the stress of being under such scrutiny. In the end I got out of my own accord before I could have a black mark against my record. It is dreadful that in a so-called caring profession there is so little regard for staff wellbeing; we are blamed instead of supported in what is one of the most stressful professions out there. I managed 7 years but don’t think I’ll be going back. My thoughts are with Annie’s family. Rest in Peace Annie.

  19. Mel August 22, 2018 at 10:34 pm #

    If I get upset or frustrated by lack of support at work it just gets thrown back at me as a question of “resilience” and how “weak” I am. These words seem grossly unfair and unhelpful, when in actual fact I have overcome many difficult life events and come out of the other side relatively unscathed.

    I came into social work feeling like I could make a difference to others and some days I now think that I need someone to help me out of my depression but there is nobody. Managers don’t care and family can’t fully understand the pressure unless you bring the stress home to them, which I’m sure none of us want. It can be very lonely being a social worker.

  20. ex s.services employee August 22, 2018 at 10:35 pm #

    I worked for local authorities for the last 30 years. I am currently 46 years of age and all was ok until I had a boss who bullied her staff (social services). I left that LA and went to another local authority but to say I’m scared is an understatement. The anxiety I get on a daily basis regarding going to work and dealing with daily tasks is beyond measure. I am petrified of msking errors and getting the sack to the point that I am setiousmy thinking of going homeless to reliebe that pressure. I left local government a few months ago and although it has helped a little, I am still surrounded by daily anxieties that I cannot cope with and I am just clinging on, but so close to giving up on this world. I cannot afford to go off sick because I only get 3 days sick pay and I have a mortgage to pay. my partner who works for social services is also off work sick due to work pressures and anxiety. doctors dont listen to you because you are ‘high functioning’. To say I’m desperate is an understatement. Employers dont care about their staff and I’m afraid that working in socall services has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. its all about saving money and an increased workload, and its no longer ultimately about the customer who you are there to help. The LA i used to work for has lost so many staff over the last 12 months it is shocking, then no one is asking why. Condolenses for the family of Annie but ultimately I feel for her as I know what she went through.

  21. christine saddler August 23, 2018 at 9:49 am #

    Chris
    RIEP Anne
    Thats why i left.
    My sanity was more important

    • Maria September 1, 2018 at 2:41 pm #

      Please seek legal advice & put in a claim for unfair constructive dismissal!

  22. Liz August 23, 2018 at 12:45 pm #

    I was shocked and saddened to hear about the death of Annie Peel. I am a social worker of 28 years and have witnessed a steady decline in staff care. In the early days of my career bullying by managers was almsot unheard of. Now it is commonplace and workers accept it as normal, keep their heads down and mouths shut in case they are then targeted. I was a victim of workplace bullying by my team manager : I didn’t realise it until my colleagues drew my attention to it. I got the union involved. The bullying got worse ! I lost all confidence and became a weeping mess. I contemplated suicide but thankfully puled myself back from the brink. In the end my union steward advised me to leave the authority which I did.

  23. Jo Johnson August 23, 2018 at 6:34 pm #

    At the end of the day you are only a number to who are only too ready to replace someone sitting on a chair. Sad but true in this day and age. Heart-felt condolences to Annie’s family and friends x

  24. Maria September 1, 2018 at 2:38 pm #

    This is disgraceful & shocking! We all know managers don’t give a shit about SW’s safety, welfare & wellbeing! We need to start standing up for our rights & support each other & not take anymore of their bullshit & expose them for what they really are – bullies, liars & heartless & cruel b*******!

  25. Lisa September 7, 2018 at 11:09 am #

    This is a tragic example of the huge stresses social workers are subjected to every day, while trying to improve the lives of the most vulnerable within our society. While I accept that other areas of work within the public sector can be equally as challenging, exhaustive and at times completely disabling, it has to become a fundamental priority for organisations to think about how they can care for their staff in the truest sense possible. Having worked across strategic, operational and training delivery for over 20 years the biggest failings throughout many of our systems and core practices relate to losing sight of our duty of care for our workforce.
    My best hope throughout my career is to support improvements in organisations caring for the very people who constantly strive to care for others. Without social care staff fighting (for this is how it often feels) to improve families lives and reduce risks children face every day our society would collectively see a spiralling of abuse, disorder and deprivation.
    Having suffered huge personal bereavements this year my sadness and empathy reaches out to Annie’s family at their tragic loss.