In 2009, CNN Money rated social work as the number one most stressful job that also pays badly. Today, there is still a growing concern about the levels of stress among social workers which can also induce both short and long term health problems. Individuals facing stressful work conditions, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout may turn to alcohol, drugs or comfort eating as a coping mechanism to deal with daily stressors. Long term stress is also known to produce metabolic effects related to cholesterol levels, central obesity and increased risks for coronary heart disease as well as other effects to include anxiety, depression and poorer immune function.
As part of our recent research, we surveyed 427 social workers across 88 local authorities, from the private and the third sector in England. Participants were asked whether they have used alcohol, illegal drugs or emotional eating to cope with work-related stress over the past 12 months and whether they displayed characteristics (difficulties in sleeping, emotional exhaustion, burnout) of chronic stress.
The results were disturbing. 88% of respondents said they felt stressed by their job as a social worker; 75% reported that they were concerned about burnout; 63% had difficulties sleeping and 56% said that they were emotionally exhausted. A further 35% said they already felt unable to cope at work.
Given that they have a duty to care for their employees, what can social work organizations and managers do to tackle stress among social workers? This research provides a number of pointers.
Demonstrate that your organization values and supports the mental health of its employees by facilitating the type of culture where it is OK for employees to speak up. People need to know that they will be supported and not stigmatized or worse if they are struggling.
Introduce mechanisms for monitoring levels of stress. Plenty of tools are available, including the kinds of items we used in this research. Care needs to be taken in how you use monitoring tools and interpret their results. Staff should not feel that they are being further scrutinized or mistrusted.
Be aware of the links between stress and health risks. 57% of our respondents had used emotional eating as a mechanism to cope with work-related stress. Despite known health risks, which include diabetes, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol, few employers are sensitive to the fact that emotional eating can signal wider difficulties. Similarly, 35% of respondents reported using alcohol to cope with work-related stress, men reporting higher levels (45%) compared to women (33%). Due to concerns about stigma and losing their jobs, social workers are very likely to want to conceal risky behaviors – for example, only 6% of our study participants said they had used drugs in the past 12 months to cope with work-related stress, a result that may have been affected by social desirability bias. Against this background, it may not be helpful to directly ask for information of this kind. Providing awareness-raising training and opportunities for confidential counselling may be more fruitful.
Provide training to help managers identify the causes and symptoms of stress among social workers and to effectively support their staff. We found that feeling valued and agreeing that there was effective leadership were significantly associated with positive job satisfaction and with key symptoms of stress, such as difficulty in sleeping.
Provide social workers with the time and resources they need to do their jobs effectively. In our study, caseload size played a clear role in risk of stress and this is not helped by the fact that the majority of respondents felt that their ability to work with clients was hampered by the bureaucratic demands of the job. 40% of respondents felt they did not have enough social workers in their team and just 12% felt they have enough time to complete their work.
These research findings are suggestive of a social work system that doesn’t currently work for social workers. Overall, the evidence implies that it is not individual characteristics, nor social work departments, that play a role in the health and well-being of practitioners. It is in fact the system itself that social workers practice in that is a threat to their health, such as caseload size, diminished funding and quality of management.
Most people are aware of the risks funding poses to clients such as vulnerable older people, at risk children and indeed other sectors such as the British National Health Service and police force. Less attention has been paid to the human cost of service cuts, and managers themselves are struggling with a mismatch between service demands and resources.
Legislatures and policy makers need to recognise that the social work sector is in crisis. Social workers should be treated as an invaluable resource to society and not as cannon fodder for austerity. Clearly more needs to be done by employers to address the issues identified in this study. Perhaps brave decisions need to be made about what becomes an essential service and what is a Bureaucratic demand going too far.
Oliver Beer is a researcher and registered Social Worker in England. He recently completed an MSc in Social Research Methods at the University of Plymouth, UK. Oliver is relocating to Ohio in 2016 and plans to pursue a PhD in social work.