By Heather Cameron
A recent storyline in the BBC’s Silent Witness programme graphically illustrated the emotional pressures that social workers operate under. Troublingly, this was not a case of dramatic license. Stress is damaging the ability of a significant number of social workers to do their job. This is often compounded by a lack of workplace support, particularly with regard to difficult cases such as child abuse.
In a recent Community Care survey of more than 2,000 frontline staff and managers, more than 80% of social workers felt stress is affecting their ability to do their job.
A third were trying to cope with stress by using alcohol, while 17% are using prescription drugs such as anti-depressants. Despite almost all respondents (97%) stating they were moderately or very stressed, only 16% said they had received any training or guidance on how to deal with work-related stress, and less than a third had been offered access to workplace counselling.
Social workers need high levels of confidence and resilience when dealing with safeguarding issues. And these are worrying findings, given the serious emotional impact more challenging cases can have.
Lack of support
New research for the NSPCC in six local authorities, highlights that social workers are finding it difficult to deal with the emotional impact of child sex abuse cases.
Adequate support and supervision is key to moderating the negative impacts of stress and burnout. The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) – introduced in September 2012 – provides a support framework for newly qualified social workers. However, the research found supervision for experienced social workers continues to still be lacking, with many having to find their own informal support networks.
With reports on child abuse a regular occurrence in the media, the public pressure on social workers and other professionals involved in such cases is unlikely to subside. It’s even been suggested that politicians and the press have a common agenda in presenting ‘bad stories’ about social work to the public.
So what can be done?
With nearly 1 in 10 social workers considering leaving their jobs, its clear that addressing stress is a priority. But they are working in an environment where local authority budgets are being cut and the numbers of children subject to child protection plans increased by 12% between March 2013 and March 2014.
Back in 2009 the Laming Report emphasised the need for social workers to “develop the emotional resilience to manage the challenges they will face when dealing with potentially difficult families”. Research at the University of Bedfordshire has explored what resilience means in practice, and how individual resilience can be improved. It suggests that resilience can be learned, and is supported by reflective practice and self-awareness.
Active listening by line managers or supervisors can be an effective tool for identifying and dealing with the onset of stress within their team. And qualitative research in Scotland suggested that with the right support, social workers can retain the sense that their work is worthwhile and satisfying.
Let’s hope that Community Care’s next annual survey of social workers will show an improvement in work-related stress.
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Inquiry into the state of social work report (2013). British Association of Social Workers