‘I called my manager…the tears cut me off’: a social worker’s story of stress-related leave

A social worker explains how the actions of management in the face of an inspection forced them off sick leave

Photo: Carballo/Fotolia

It all started with the usual office whisper of an impending inspection, and the subsequent speculation of a possible ‘inadequate’ result.

In all honesty, that rating would have been a true enough picture of our service due to the usual high caseloads and a conveyor belt of ever-changing managers. So, what happens next?

The ‘hush hush’ management meetings begin, often taking hours and always at times when you need the managers most, like on duty days.

As frontline workers, it is blatantly clear that at this point we will not be privy to any information until it is deemed necessary, so we just sit and wait with prickles of concern growing about those cases that may be drifting just a little.

Then the fun begins. It is often kicked off with the ‘team meeting’, for which everyone is directed to attend with a curt email which requests justifiable reasons be given for any non-attenders.

Following the agenda of tedious items, the manager then builds up to what is commonly known as the ‘s**t sandwich’. ‘I would like to say a big thank you for everyone’s hard work recently through this challenging time, but for the next few weeks we need a real push on getting all our cases up to date so please focus on this! We’re a great team and can do this!’

First comes the immediate need for supervision with all staff on all cases. Supervision that some of the team have not seen for months. Don’t be fooled, this is not a chance to reflect and analyse your cases with an experienced senior worker. This is solely a data collection/management oversight activity and your reflection and thoughts are not required or welcomed.

Emails and lists

The emails from the team manager begin at a steady pace with various requests to check visits, plans, health and dental checks. At this point they seem quite helpful and actually remind you of some things that you may have missed. This doesn’t last long. The emails quickly pick up pace with numerous ones from all levels of management often stating the same thing.

To ensure that we don’t miss anything, the use of CAPITAL LETTERS is then used, and also the occasional red underlined words with dramatic exclamation marks!!

There’s also the name and shame emails, with our names displayed for all to see how behind we are.  Alongside this the never-ending lists are circulated on our desks each day, with the ‘out of dates’ and the ‘not done’.

While all this takes place around you, you see your colleagues struggling, looking tired, grumbling and downright miserable. You want to offer some of the less experienced workers some support but you yourself are just about managing to keep afloat.

I normally manage through these times by keeping a focus on the children and a clear distinction between what is truly important and what in the grand scheme of things doesn’t really matter (although not so much from a manager’s perspective).

‘Inflict their own pain’

But not this time. It’s Sunday evening and I begin my usual evening routine, in which I attempt to make headway on the week’s work before it has even begun. As I open my laptop the emails begin immediately, thick and fast pinging up on the screen: visits not done, plans out of date, assessments on 43 days, and on and on. It is clear the managers have been busy all weekend…working to inflict their own pain on us as soon as we hit the week ahead.

My head begins to spin and I immediately feel overwhelmed. I stare at the screen and the list of children for what seems like forever and cannot even think of where I could start. So I don’t. I close the laptop and go straight to bed. It’s 6pm.

That night I slept very little, manically thinking about each case and what needs to be done. I could feel my chest tightening throughout the night and felt physically ill. It was clear that my anxiety had taken over, and that returning to work that Monday was not going to help.

I called my manager, and as I said the words ‘I’m really sorry but I don’t think I’m going to be able to come in today… as I feel…’ the tears cut me off.  And so my first ever stress related sick leave began.

As the days went by, I began to understand what I was anxious about.

Breaking point

For me I wasn’t worried that a dental visit wasn’t on the system, that my plans are not SMART enough or that I didn’t follow the correct template for visits. It was about the way I felt pressured and harassed by managers to focus upon systems, data and processes, which was ultimately taking away from the work that really needed to be done with the vulnerable children in crisis and in need.

I came to understand that I am constantly burdened with a level of guilt and worry about each young person and what was not getting done in their best interest. This is only because I truly care about the children and this is why I chose this career path.

I ask my service – when it’s inevitable and understandable that an ‘inadequate’ outcome is on its way – why still push the workers to breaking point? A breaking point which will make some leave their jobs, while others end up on sick leave and the rest just feeling overwhelmed, undervalued and just unhappy. Is it really worth it?

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51 Responses to ‘I called my manager…the tears cut me off’: a social worker’s story of stress-related leave

  1. Tom J December 7, 2018 at 9:34 am #

    Good article- same experiences in most LA’s unfortunately.

    • Susan December 13, 2018 at 8:45 pm #

      OMG this took me back to my first breakdown as a Social Worker and the lack of understanding my line manager had of the illness and just made you feel that you couldn’t do your job.
      Well I am in a better place now and am still hanging in by a thread as a Social Worker it’s taken me years to understand my illness and therapy to realise that I am good at my job some just aren’t good managers.

    • Jacqueline Millar Moore December 14, 2018 at 10:19 am #

      I could have been the writer. This is a truly accurate account of the life of a social worker; whether in suit services or in children & family teams. Managerialism gas killed the true essence and ethos of “social work.” Those of us who have evolved from the social consciousness of our hero’s such as Sylvia Pankhurst or Cholmsky are ground underfoot and cast aside. Some of us, like me, get out and learn to breathe out with joy and live.

  2. Trish December 7, 2018 at 11:41 am #

    Very well described. I do hope things are better for this worker now. I left children’s services after 16 years because of this sort of thing. Reading this reminds me that I made the right decision for me.

    • Ruth Scott December 13, 2018 at 4:27 pm #

      I’m the same. I’ve been qualified for 20 years. I was “dismissed” as I could not give the LA a date of return as I was off work due to having a breakdown, I was treated terribly, even in March when they paid money I was due, they TOOK OUT MONEY FOR MY PENSION. bearing in mind I was dismissed in December 2017.

      I’ll never go back to social work, I’m now taking time out to receive therapy and am hoping to retrain as a midwife.

      Please be aware that my mental health issues NEVER interfered with my work with my children and families!!

  3. Dave Woodward December 7, 2018 at 12:11 pm #

    I retrained as CBT Therapist after 20 years in social work. Major cause of depression is acting, or being required to act in a way that conflicts with your value base. Current social work prioritises processes over real outcomes. The longer social workers are required to do this the more anxious and depressed they will become. It is virtually inevitable if they have a strong value base(which is a good thing) In my opinion this is a national disgrace but social work like lots if other professions appears to have lost its radical rebellious edge that helped so many people. Someone needs to fight back and reclaim value lead social work.

  4. Sabine December 7, 2018 at 1:24 pm #

    Nothing has changed then, management often not really learning the lessons. It is a sad state of affairs.

    • Erin December 9, 2018 at 1:43 pm #

      I’ve had the same experience and I’m guessing many other sociall workers have also. It’s relentless and I believe it will only get worse. I left after 11 years after it sucked the life out of me

  5. Lorna Byrne-Grundy December 7, 2018 at 1:56 pm #

    In a word NO! As always the pressure rachets up on the social worker with no meaningful support given and no matter how hard we work it’s always the negatives that are picked upon by managers while our good work fades into the distance along with the resources we are given to help keep vulnerable children and adults safe. Expecting Social Workers to work under this level of preasure impacts our physical and mental health. Something has to be done before we break or the whole system breaks.

  6. Josephine December 7, 2018 at 2:28 pm #

    Everyday I think about leaving. I’m a veteran, I’ve been a SW for 20 + yrs and I’m beginning to think it’s time I left. The long hours, the relentless flow of referrals/ reports and other bureaucratic tasks leaving little time for reflection and training! Supervision… what’s that? Rather it’s a business meeting.
    Managers !!! Managers are definitely less supportive than they used to be . Long gone are the days when they were concerned with our welfare! They are target focused. We are mere objects to help them achieve those targets.

  7. Rochelle December 7, 2018 at 7:33 pm #

    Accurately describes the LA in which I work. Such a shame that we have to spend so much time with the procedural aspect of social work and although we do our stat visits we can rarely do more than that with children, particularly in times that the writer describes above.
    I’m seeing families who, with a proper thought out service could make some real improvements but time and work is needed to tap into motivation for change and the strengths within the family; so often we’re not able to do that. Matters then escalate with the blame attributed to parents rather than the problem – which Isn’t always fair and a just use of power.

  8. Kez December 7, 2018 at 8:11 pm #

    Typical local authority management style, procedural led and missing what’s truely important..the children in crisis. Well written article and a true reflection of social work today.

  9. Jennifer Johnson December 7, 2018 at 10:33 pm #

    Good article when will things change. It’s sad, its true and unfortunately it’s widespread……………..

  10. Colice December 8, 2018 at 8:24 am #

    I totally agree with statements in the article, I also want to add, bullying into the mix, having inexperienced managers make inappropriate decisions because they don’t really read the case notes; then throw their weight around, vitimise the social workers below them and work out their inadequacies in the team by bullying or being racist to team members they don’t like for whatever reason. Welcome to the world if social work.

  11. Olle December 8, 2018 at 9:21 am #

    Teaching in Further education is no different. I teach Social Work. Public services are broken. I left frontline Social Work to teach it for all the reasons outlined above almost 20 years ago.

  12. John Burton December 8, 2018 at 10:00 am #

    Upside-down organisations don’t work. Health, social care and education are run by fear – fear of being rated inadequate by inspections. So, they have to comply with the demands of regulators rather than focus on their purpose. And everyone suffers. An ignorant, sick and cruel society and government. We have to find the solidarity, energy and commitment to change it.

    • Susan December 13, 2018 at 8:48 pm #

      Yes you are so right

  13. Nonametomention December 8, 2018 at 4:05 pm #

    Couldn’t have read a truer word! And unfortunately seems to be nation wide. An articulate piece that demonstrates the pressures we are under day by day. Well done and hope things improve for you (And everyone)

  14. Aa December 8, 2018 at 4:37 pm #

    This article is beautifully written, and truly reflects the difficulties faced by social workers. I hope that one day there is a shift in social care that focuses on all the positive direct work that social workers do, rather that focusing on paperwork. I hope that there is a shift in blame culture within social work practice where social workers are ostracized.

  15. Teddy December 9, 2018 at 10:13 am #

    Sounds familiar. It surprises me that the inspectors dont see through all this. Nothing is as it seems when they arrive.

  16. dk December 9, 2018 at 12:07 pm #

    I remember my first Ofsted… I remember being asked about visits, assessments and case notes, but not once about how any of my children were. I remember wanting feedback, to learn and to be better, and knowing that wearing my Sunday’s best wasn’t going to help with that. I remember the scary Ofseed inspector being far more emotionally attuned to me and my children than my line manager.

    I’ve developed what is luckily for me a fairly simple coping strategy. I just don’t care about Ofsted any more. Keeping children safe is my ‘problem’. Keeping Ofsted happy isn’t, and won’t ever be. It’s funny how we came up with ‘false compliance’ as another way to dehumanise people and too often refuse to see it on our own services.

  17. sandy beach December 9, 2018 at 12:25 pm #

    Familiar tale, and not the worst, if youre strong enough to endure the onslaught it just builds, it doesnt get better. Meanwhile the arbitory handing out of gold stars by Ofsted has been placed out of the reach of many LA’s by austerity and the governments duality -on one hand all children have to be safe, regardless of the reality of this and who the real perpetrators are. Whilst on the other removal of all services to support and help families informally, and see any problems building is cut. So we are left with the binary choice’s that have evolved over the last decade more than any other. Where as we are forced into issuing in court sooner, placing a further burden on our staff with students now writing court reports – does this not sound out alarms can Ofsted not state this is unsuitable work for students, guidance or not, – what ever state the LA is up to, if they are called for evidence prior to qualifying how does this look? The courts should decline to take evidence from students and ask more questions of the LA’s decisions, many of which are different to what the SW would have made with the push of the management culture above all else. More than anything else where are the ADs in this debate – l do not see them making the news to combate the agenda, instead they are complicit in this all.

  18. J December 9, 2018 at 3:32 pm #

    Great article. Enjoyed reading it..relate to this far to easily

  19. Lynn December 10, 2018 at 8:58 am #

    It is amazing how the focus moves from building a trusting relationship with service users to processes, that are just window dressing. I can’t work out why senior managers allow Ofsted to rule us like this!! Maybe local authorities can group together to resist the tyranny of inspections.

  20. Anon December 10, 2018 at 11:48 am #

    It’s no surprise that such a practice is common in social care and the level of acceptance towards such a practice by the independent bodies like Ofsted and hcpc, either by turning a blind eye or not addressing effectively, they are allowing such practices to perpetuate and get entrenched within the system.
    There have been occasions when the management has changed the data to prove their point and to protect themselves. This is a serious issue but nothing happens to the management because their control over everything is immeasurable.

  21. SazzyP December 10, 2018 at 8:16 pm #

    Sad to see the number of responses that echo this writers experience. Even sadder that the prospect of improvement is futile.

  22. Preena K December 10, 2018 at 11:21 pm #

    I relate so much to this and it’s a shame. Constant emails of visits and assessments outstanding, laughable (or lack of) supervisions, little acknowledgment of the good work done, and during my ASYE, I had a total of 7 managers including periods with no manager. I love my job, but social care is in a mess

  23. Elaine December 10, 2018 at 11:33 pm #

    I totally understand how people can be utterly flattened by the bureaucracy and target setting, and the way they are spoken to and treated by management. I’m lucky in that I am a cantankerous old bugger, and when this happened in my LA I made it absolutely crystal clear to my managers that (a) if I received any emails with capital letters or red ink, they would be immediately deleted without being read – and they were (b) Ofsted was not my problem, the children were my focus and (c) if targets are missed due to pressure of work, that’s as much a management problem as anything else so I’d be prepared to discuss where the issues lay but not shoulder all of the responsibility.
    I’m assertive and a bit radical, and never lost sight of the reason I came into social work. Still a proud social worker, no longer working for the LA though, as they never did enough to keep me.
    BTW this attitude never once affected my career and I felt respected by my immediate line managers, though not by senior managers, which never bothered me as the feeling was mutual.

    • Phil December 12, 2018 at 10:06 pm #


      • Rosemary December 13, 2018 at 8:41 pm #

        A very good attitude

  24. Anon 2 December 10, 2018 at 11:34 pm #

    Great article. You can really see the passion for proper social work from the writer

  25. Fiona Morris December 11, 2018 at 6:09 am #

    Really “good” article, shared on fb by a friend who is a lifelong social worker with me, a lifelong teacher. Very hard to read, as are all the affirming responses. I agree with John Burton who says, “Upside-down organisations don’t work … We have to find the solidarity, energy and commitment to change …” Let’s not give up, people. The change MUST come from within, from the frontline and from committed, vocational, passionate workers – whether in social care, education or health.

  26. Michael kelly December 11, 2018 at 8:59 am #

    Couldn’t have summarised it better.. I left 12 months ago after 33 years of social work, following a similar experience. Subsequent management indifference only confirmed in my mind where the device was heading .. data processing is no substitute for good supervision. It seems that this is what is required nowadays.. the ability to complete forms .. in a certain way, and not to question management. Following a period of illness I left the service without as much as a backward glance .. how much better do I feel now .. ?! You guess .. 🤓

  27. Linda Thomason December 11, 2018 at 9:05 am #

    This is the most honest article I have read and as a retired sw through health I realise that I loved the job if your given time to do it

  28. SB December 11, 2018 at 10:02 am #

    Excellent article well done for doing it.This article should be made available to SW students as an indication of how bad LA departments can be. Im sure unfortunately that the first LA placement will show the reality and you can see why a lot of students only take a job as a first stage and as soon as possible move from the LA setting.

  29. Maharg December 11, 2018 at 12:49 pm #

    Reading the article and the responses, there is an ongoing theme that reflects do more, in a shorter space of time, in a more professional and appropriate way. Anything less than this is seen as a failure on your part. 14 years qualified social worker, one nervous breakdown, which lasted three months, followed by return to work, and an evaluation of my work practices. A real chicken and egg scenario, did my work practices fail me, or did my inability to manage stress, undermine my work practices. Seven years later on, and three years into a different job. I’m beginning to feel that social work, and the role I do now are taking a toll. My previous job. I gave up due to the exceptional demands put upon me, possibly because I was good at resolving and working extremely difficult and complex cases, I see this now with other colleagues who have cornered the market relating to individuals who are complex, have additional needs, mental health and learning disabilities, forensic history, and I can see them wading chest height through the work, having been there. I can offer guidance and support, but like me at the time, they are unable to resolve the deluge that be falls them. I ask where is the management, and the managers in amongst this. Or is there response based on the wallpaper word”proportionate”, one of those words that you begin to hate because it means nothing to anybody outside of the person that stated, and then justifies their intervention by topping and tailing the sentence with this word. Love the article, but hate that is so true, and the impact that it has on this profession

  30. MK December 11, 2018 at 1:16 pm #

    Beautifully articulated ‘The Mess’ social care is. Thank you for writing this! my thoughts exactly. More please, speak up!

  31. MK December 11, 2018 at 1:24 pm #

    ‘Is the social worker fit to practice?’ Instead how about, ‘is the LA fit to practice social care?’ I question how LA manages social care budgets with other competing dept budgets.

  32. Nana December 11, 2018 at 6:00 pm #

    The hardworking social workers are sometimes not even recommended by the La even if their work was impressive to Ofsted. In some LA the inspection is a means to push incompetent almost newly qualified workers to management level due to whom they know. Our profession sucks and nepotism reigns. True reflection of our practice

  33. Dee December 11, 2018 at 6:14 pm #

    And once again that says it all… I wonder, do managers and senior managers read these articles and simply believe they don’t behave that way or simply have the attitude that this is what social work is…

    Astounding, I am sure they once felt this way when they actually practiced social work..: never takes long for those becoming a manager to follow what seems to be normal management practice… One day they may just say stoppppp we aren’t doing it this way anymore

    Yes I know, stupid having hope !

  34. John Pilcher December 11, 2018 at 9:23 pm #

    Yep that’s it, collect lots of data , don’t look at supporting families. Tick the box. Bedroom seen, child seen, smoke detector tested, last dental check, optician. Pocket money, clothing, activities etc. Quality of interaction, relationship with SW, with carers etc not worried about. Your so right! Where do you start, plus recording it on to the computer system takes 10 minutes because it’s not fit for purpose. It’s an impossible task. It’s driven by meeting statistical data collection not enhancing children’s lives or keeping them safe. SW’s are so focused on collecting data that it would be easy to miss another baby P wouldn’t it! But the system measures us by data so there is no hope. I see excellent pracrioners pushed to the limit until they eventually break. It’s about time people where sued for the harm metered out on staff. Oh and the expectation that SW work extra hours for free, what a joke. SW has become a charity.

  35. Louise marshall December 13, 2018 at 1:04 pm #

    As an Early Help practitioner I have been subject to this and despite asking for support (as an experienced member of a strong team devastated by govt cuts) was refused, ridiculed and subsequently left, just before the bullying Managers were removed from post!
    Good OFSTED results are determined by consistent and supportive Management behaviours- not finger pointing and blame!!!

  36. ANONYMOUS December 13, 2018 at 3:28 pm #

    The abundance of symbiotic responses to this cris de coeur calls for a total review of what matters.

    The mentality and power of Managers and Inspectors can and often does destroy good Social

    Workers and excellent services, and the multiple letters of extreme distress and impotence

    evidence the lack of concern and of understanding of the real task displayed by some of the

    powers that be. There exists an urgent need for improving the criteria for selection of people in

    power and ensuring proper training and accountability, in order to avoid the bitter choice of

    suffering injustice and failing those in need or resorting to expensive and stressful legal redress. .

  37. Maz December 13, 2018 at 4:33 pm #

    Whatever happened to good old fashioned social work with support for the service users the social workers and management

    Everyone needs to feel. valued and SW’s need a stable and supportive team with manageable caseloads where paperwork is able to be kept up to date

    Glad I am old enough to remember a time
    Like this and so pleased that I am retired

    People can’t keep working in such oppressive conditions Guess they don’t tell the new SW students about the stress they will have to endure!!

    I feel so sad reading this artical and remember well when challenging a manager over poor practice being told you’re an f—king SW do it !!
    I left and went to work for a charity
    Good luck to you all it sounds unemaginable now

  38. Azz December 13, 2018 at 5:52 pm #

    This article reflects the reality of front line social work! Thanks for sharing this.

  39. La worker December 14, 2018 at 1:01 am #

    I think it’s clear that many of us sing from the same hymn sheet but we fail to see our role in change. We have lost the activist in our personality due to stress and tiredness. Essentially we should be asking our unions what do we pay you for and we should be getting them to speak to unions for health and teaching – it’s time we joined forces to effect change in local authority professions !

  40. Annon December 14, 2018 at 8:29 pm #

    Since been qualified 10 yrs ago I rarely had a day off sick, was quite healthy and positive about my job. Then following a service restructure I lost a sense of my identity and felt like a commodity rather than a person. The impact of this restructure was I suffered a severe bout of mental illness, ironic as I always thought I was strong and resilient to change. Social work was my life, my passion but when you feel undervalued, overwhelmed or your position is taken away from you it can have a dramatic effect. But, I am not ashamed to talk about my mental health, it’s an illness and shouldn’t be hidden. I would say to any worker or manager – if you are under stress speak to your doctor and get help. Your life is worth more important than your job. People we work with need us to be well so we can try and make their situation better.

  41. Eco-social worker December 17, 2018 at 9:34 am #

    My work as a union steward has taught me that work very rarely makes social workers go off sick, it’s management.

  42. Elizabeth December 17, 2018 at 1:27 pm #

    Sadly it is no better in one of the largest independent fostering agencies. Over the years I saw case loads increase, paperwork increase, support staff being made redundant, resources being taken away and a very heavy focus on box ticking. Managers were unsupportive with a “just get on with it” attitude and a bullying culture if you spoke out. What a very sad climate there is in social work these days.

  43. henrietta coker December 18, 2018 at 8:55 am #

    Hmm, the lack of strong unions, press coverage of the Social Work Profession have made us easy targets. This lack of respect for the profession by the general public as perhaps filtered down to Ofsted etc. Managers are as afraid of Ofsted as the rest of us and often misplace their stress.

  44. Jim January 3, 2019 at 12:42 pm #

    let this be a reality check to young students thinking of a career in social work..my advice after 30 years in the profession is ”don’t”!….if you want to avoid children&family LA social work I am afraid that you will most liklely find you will only get posts in this area upon qualifying as that is where most of the vacancies are. You will have to do at least 2 or 3 years in this hell before you can compete for posts in the less ”stressful” areas of mental health, elderly, disability etc, although these can also be very hectic and difficult roles