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Stress in social work: A research review

Stress amongst social workers is in the news again. Last week, Community Care reported the findings of their survey of over 1,000 social workers which found that 96% felt moderately or very stressed. The following day the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Work published a State of Social Work report which recommended, amongst other things, that a more rigorous way of ensuring social workers’ well-being is introduced.

With media attacks on social workers increasing in both their ferocity and inaccuracy, and with budget cuts reducing services to a bare minimum, practitioners are under intense pressure. Therefore, we chose ‘Looking after ourselves’ as the theme of December’s Making Research Count seminar in York. Its aim was to review the research evidence about stress in social work and explore some strategies for managing it.

I presented a brief overview of the research on social work stress. If you’re interested, the PPT presentation can be downloaded here.

Social work is a demanding job. Amongst human service professions, it involves perhaps the most emotional labour and is probably the most vilified. So it’s not surprising that rates of stress and burnout in the profession are so high. However, it’s important to be aware that rates of stress and burnout can be over- or under-estimated in surveys.

Firstly, the way in which questions are asked will shape the responses received. Subjective self-report questions such as ‘how stressed do you feel at work?’ or ‘how close do you feel to burning out?’ are likely to elicit responses which over-estimate the true prevalence of stress and burnout. Objective self-report questions such as ‘have you taken time off due to work-related stress or depression in the past year’ are more likely to provide an accurate estimate of the impact of stress and burnout on the profession. Additionally, standardised research measures such as the Maslach Burnout Inventory provide accurate assessments of stress and burnout in occupations (though don’t provide eye-catching headlines such as “Social workers more likely to turn to food than to managers as a way of coping with stress“!).

Secondly, response bias can be a problem in surveys about stress. Practitioners are either too busy or stressed to fill it in (leading to an under-estimation of stress levels) or those who are stressed complete it as a means of communicating their distress (leading to an over-estimation of stress levels). Random sampling is rare in workforce surveys, but recruiting large samples can mitigate some of the problems caused by response bias.

Since surveys of local authority social service department workforces began in the 1990s, it has become evident that stress is a problem for social workers. Rates of depression and anxiety amongst social workers have increased over the last 20 years, though levels of job satisfaction remain stubbornly high. Researchers in Canada, the US and the UK have all explored this phenomena and have found in studies of social workers working with children and families that, although levels of burnout are high, quite frequently levels of job satisfaction are high too.

A national survey conducted by Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP) Janine Hudson last year found that rates of depression and anxiety amongst AMHPs have fallen from 52% in an equivalent survey of Approved Social Workers conducted ten years previously to 44%. This is still unacceptably high, given that the rate of common mental disorders in the general population is about 16%.

The statutory duties of AMHPs are not the prime reason for such high levels of stress, though they are certainly a contributory factor. High caseloads, not feeling valued by their employer, and feeling less satisfied about the non-AMHP duties which social workers undertake were all associated with higher rates of depression and anxiety. AMHPs also cited the lack of available and appropriate resources; the high emotional labour of their jobs; their role not being understood or supported; not feeling valued; feeling vulnerable; and the general high pressure of their workloads as contributing to their stress.

Clearly, systemic changes are required to reduce stress amongst social workers. Peer support, good supervision and a supportive working environment can help to alleviate stress and promote well-being. Practitioners can practice mindfulness techniques, as we explored with Mike Bush in the seminar yesterday. But the standards for employers introduced by the Social Work Reform Board need to be enforced. Relying solely on the the resilience of practitioners to provide safe and effective social work services, without changing the hostile environment in which they are practising, is clearly untenable. Now is the time for the Chief Social Workers to act.

If you’re interested in debating the issues around stress in social work further, the College of Social Work is hosting an online debate on this topic on 18th December at 12.30pm. Also, if you’re interested in finding out more about yesterday’s seminar, the tweet trail can be found below:

2 thoughts on “Stress in social work: A research review

  1. Greg Egan says:

    I worked in child protection in Sydney Australia for 11 years in child protection caseworker and manager roles an the rate of stress and anxiety in workers I worked with was very high with a lot not wanting to ask for help or admit they were stressed because they were scared their work mates and managers would think them weak. I observed a culture where you were picked on or bullied if you admitted to needing help or when a person did ask for help it was ignored. Once when I approach my director and said my staff were stressed and over worked and some were showing signs of burnout the response I got was the statistics don’t show they have a high case load so allocate them more. This tells me that it is a problem running all the way up the senior management ranks of child protection in Nsw Australia. I think this is a important issue to keep on the radar and continual advocacy is needed to support such workers.

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