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Make Employer Standards mandatory

Community Care have re-launched its campaign to Stand up for Social Work to raise the profile of social work in the run-up to the general election. There are many ways to get involved. If everyone did something – however small – it will make a difference. Take a look at their website for some ideas.

To help the campaign, I wrote a piece about why enforcing the Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England may help to reduce stress and burnout in the profession. It can be viewed here, but below is an earlier version of the article.

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Employer standards

Social workers experience high levels of stress and burnout. 80% of over 2,000 social workers polled by Community Care in 2014 believed that stress was affecting their ability to do their job. This has been found in repeated surveys over the last 20 years, but the problem seems to be getting worse.

The Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England are currently voluntary. Published by the Local Government Association on behalf of the Social Work reform partners, these Standards are indicative of good practice in the employment of social workers. Making them mandatory may help to reduce stress and burnout in the profession.

In summary, there are eight Standards:

  1. Clear social work accountability framework
  2. Effective workforce planning
  3. Safe workloads and case allocation
  4. Managing risks and resources
  5. Effective and appropriate supervision
  6. Continuing professional development
  7. Professional registration
  8. Effective partnerships

The substantial evidence base about the causes and correlates of stress among social workers provide some clues about how stress and burnout can be reduced.

Caseloads

Research tells us that caseload size and the complexity of work undertaken is associated with higher levels of stress in social work. Statutory work, such as in mental health or children and families social work, is a particular source of stress. This leads to a high turnover of practitioners – particularly in children and families teams – but also the development of resiliency in experienced practitioners.

Social worker stress can be reduced if caseload sizes are appropriate for the experience of the worker and the complexity of roles they are expected to undertake. The enforcement of Standard 3 would mean that both practitioners and service users could be protected from harm caused by excessive workloads.

Working environments

Working environments which promote peer support, value the contributions of social workers and encourage practitioners to voice their concerns can help to alleviate social work stress. However, the culture of fear which is pervasive in social work offices does not promote conducive working environments.  Standard 4 requires employers to foster a culture of openness to empower social workers to make appropriate professional judgements and to raise concerns without fear of recrimination. If this were made mandatory it would make a significant contribution to alleviating social worker stress.

Resources

Research findings indicate that social work stress is caused by having insufficient resources to do the job. This is becoming an increasing problem in the Age of Austerity where it is commonplace to be working with minimal local authority resources and restricted voluntary sector capacity. At the most basic level, social workers need to have the practical tools to do their jobs. Enforcing Standard 4 will go some way to ensure this.

Supervision

Practitioners not receiving reflective supervision are at higher risk of stress and burnout. Standard 5 requires employers to provide professional supervision by a registered social worker which meets their learning and development needs. This is not occurring in many teams, placing practitioners at a higher risk of burnout from stress.

Conclusion

Reductions in public expenditure have caused increasing social work caseloads and reductions in the number of practitioners. Enforcing the Standards for Employers of Social Workers in England will not solve this problem, but it will certainly go some way towards mitigating many of the causes of stress among social workers.

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