Social Work Stress and Anxiety

Social work stress and anxiety is being exacerbated as work forces are diminishing and work loads are increasing. Social work practice is suffering especially in the more acute front-line services, it seems to be taking it’s toll. Vacancy rates are still very high, newly qualified staff are being asked to do more than their experience should let them.  Community Care magazine is inviting responses to an online survey and it will be interesting to see the outcome.

Over the years the social work profession has failed – in my view – to fully support it’s work force with the kind of supervision and support designed to keep staff healthy and as stress free as possible. Social work stress and anxiety has to be addressed. Reflective supervision is a great skill which is not practised as it should be. Most social workers’ resources are between their ears and if they’re burning out then those they work with are not getting the best service.

When delivering a training course called ‘Empowering Social Work’ I always bring to people’s attention something called Vicarious Traumatisation which is a description of regular exposure to other people’s traumatic experiences.  Social work stress and anxiety levels can be affected. There is a relevant quote by Babette Rothschild “all emotions are contagious… both the ones that are pleasant and the ones that are unpleasant.” People on the frontline experience this regularly, and those people are called what Frost and Robinson writing in the Harvard Business Review describe as “toxic handlers”.

Day in day out brings a regular diet of traumatic events, abusive behaviour towards the vulnerable, frustration at lack of resources, overwhelming guilt at your inability to fully service your workload. Social work stress & anxiety has insidious and sometimes chronic effects on health and social interaction. Noticeably, sleep patterns change, enthusiasm for the job wanes, regular feeling of tiredness and then a higher propensity towards accidents, negative feelings towards colleagues and managers. All of this and more can lead to a progressive line from feeling fed up through to clinical symptoms of depression. All the above leads to an increased number of sick days therefore extra burdens for colleagues and the start of what can be a vicious cycle.

Where vacancy rates are high it’s often the case that  posts have to be filled by either agency staff who may not experience the same level of dedication to the employer or newly qualified social workers (NQSW’s) who we know through trade union surveys are given more responsibility than their experience should allow. In fact 1 in 4 of NQSW’s surveyed said that they had unsupervised responsibility for assessing risk and safeguarding even while on practice placements during their training. There’s no way that the huge level of anxiety and under resourcing can avoid this kind of situation. It’s just another symptom of the austerity measures placing vulnerable people in danger.  We need more reflective supervision by qualified counsellors. It shouldn’t just be left to the immediate line manager – even if some of them are very competent to deliver it. Inevitably operational supervision will take precedence and the worker’s own personal health will not receive the attention needed to let them do the job to the best of their ability. Sometimes, as well, their immediate manager is not the best person to offer this as they may not feel comfortable discussing intimate anxiety with them, or it could just be a gender issue or some other understandable obstacle to sharing their concerns.

Social work stress and anxiety has to be reduced. We have to get this right. We have to get this improved. There is a resource issue. The social work profession needs much more investment if we’re not going to constantly experience the levels of negativity and demonisation from sections of the media determined always to blame rather than understand.

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