Managing stress in social work is key to avoiding burn out and staying effective. Firstly lets say that social work gives an amazing sense of job satisfaction when it is working well. But we can’t deny that being a busy frontline social worker can and does have a toll on your health and well being. A certain amount of stress is good, but if that stress is constant or unmanageable then the long term impact of adrenalin and cortisone in the body is detrimental. Add to that long hours sitting at screens, sugary office snacks and volumes of caffeine, and you start to get the picture.
Stress in social work also impacts families and children. Clearly, if workers are too frazzled to focus on children’s needs properly or the team has a high turn over of staff, children and adults will not get the service that they need.
This is what long term stress in social work does to the body: it is worth looking closely at this…
Effects of stress in social work on the body
Key tips to manage stress in social work
The long term health and wellbeing impact of constant stress is not an acceptable price to pay for coming to work. Although we need to manage our own stress in the work, our managers also have a responsibility to keep stress levels manageable.
Be focused – prioritise, prioritise and prioritise
Be focused, plan your day beforehand, and leave time for unexpected events in your schedule. Prioritise the key tasks and goals that have to be done and do them first. Plan, plan plan. Don’t be “busy being busy” – some workers always look busy, but work chaotically and get little done – make your time count. Even if you can’t do it now, knowing when you will get to it will help keep you calm!
Respectfully set boundaries with your manager.
Yes, you have the right to say that you can’t take 145 cases and get everything done. You need to be clear that you don’t have superman/woman powers and whilst some flexibility is reasonable, you won’t be working all hours every evening and the whole weekend. Your manager needs to therefore prioritise what needs to get done within the boundaries of the local authorities’ agreed case load policy. Get your diary out and go through your time use. If you can show them how you are using your time effectively, then you can respectfully ask them to show you how you do the magic trick of being in two places at the same time.
Remember that feeling stressed in not your fault. Sometimes work cultures can make you feel like this is your personal or professional failure. It is not. You have the right to good support and manageable work loads.
Practice a healthy lifestyle
Practice a healthy lifestyle – eat well, work at getting good quality sleep, and do some healthy sport or activity, even if it is walking the dog. It will definitely help you feel better. Add to that – have some outlets – have a life outside the office – have fun!
Work collaboratively with colleagues.
Work collaboratively with colleagues. A strong team can halve the stress levels, as you support colleagues and they support you. Be a supportive colleague and expect that colleagues will help you too when you need to off load from a shit visit. You can help create that team, even if your manager isn’t.
Beware of too much coffee
Drink lots of water, hydrate and beware of too much coffee. Caffeine in large doses physiologically creates a state of anxiety. It sounds stupid, but sometimes that cloud of anxiety and foreboding you feel could literally be caused by the five coffees you drank before 12.00. Just cut back the coffee!!
Tips for managers to manage stress in social work
It is a management responsibility to create a safe, healthy working environment where social work can flourish. High turn over rates negatively affect children and families, that we work with and disrupt service continuity. Here are some key steps that can be put in place:
Reasonable case loads
Every local authority should have an agreement about what constitutes a reasonable case load, and should be doing all in its power to enforce it. I have seen local authorities where team managers were holding 140 cases that they couldn`t allocate. And… yes, they did seem a tad stressed. But that is completely unacceptable. Senior managers need to manage recruitment properly and ensure appropriate allocation, and prioritisation. Any Ofsted inspection will spot where team managers are holding unallocated cases.
Create the right culture to manage stress in social work
Create the right culture – support, reflection and valuing staff. Nurture and look after your staff, build in time for staff to off load or take time out after a difficult visit. Create a culture which celebrates good practice, values social work reflection and rewards staff skills, efforts and achievement. You will achieve a lot more with your team if they feel motivated and valued. Being heard, and good communication are key to successful team environments.
Have the right management style
We know from research that the high challenge and high support from managers results in the best performance. This means that team managers are clear about the standards and expectations sought from staff, and are really good at listening to them, and coaching and mentoring them to achieve that performance. Clear boundaries, valuing staff and respect are at the heart of this. Some services might find that they stop having a staffing crises if workers really like working in their teams!
Apply a zero tolerance for lone visits out of hours or in high risk scenarios. It is astonishing to see the practice of workers going out alone to knock on doors of homes known to be used by violent gangs, violent offenders or aggressive parents. Sometimes teams operate in a macho sub culture which makes it hard for workers to say that they feel afraid to visit alone. Challenge that and reset the culture and practice. Intimidation will inhibit the worker from challenging and being able to address the issues. Discuss and implement the disguised compliance policy in your team.
Good quality supervision to manage stress in social work
Use supervision to help your frontline workers manage the stress in social work. Supervision needs to be regular and reflective and focused on the impact that the work is having on children. It needs to give space for workers to think about how they feel, explore hypothesis, prioritise work load and listen empathically. It needs to contain the anxieties within the work, give good direction and support the worker.
Take time as a team to talk. Have a team day out and –amongst other things – talk about health and wellbeing. This helps you to take stock take feedback, listen and learn. Make listening and responding to your team part of your management style. Sometimes really silly things create a lot of unnecessary stress in teams. For example, if getting petty cash has become a demoralising pedantic administrative nightmare, raise this with your own senior managers.