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Working in a social work job is an incredibly pressurised environment; the dedication to ensuring the best possible outcome for vulnerable children and adults can take a toll on social work practitioners as they cope with heavy caseloads and little supervision.

Rising pressures on social service departments has led to an increase in the number of practitioners leaving the profession citing “burnout” or “emotional distress” as the primary factor. The issue has become serious enough that not only have BASW launched a new campaign to improve working conditions for social workers, but there is also a dedicated seminar on coping with emotional distress at this year’s Community Care Live which is taking place in London next month.

What can be done about this growing epidemic and how can we support our peers and co-workers to help them cope with the harsh realities of a social work career? We recently asked you to let us know how experienced social work managers could support their teams and it was clear from your answers that “regular supervision” is one of the most important factors in preventing social worker burnout.

Corrinne from Bristol suggests that “Supervisors need to take time to know their individual social workers, ensure in each supervision they ask how the social workers are, and consider the current issues on their case load that may be causing them additional stress.”

This was agreed by Karen from Nottingham who added “Managers need to be tuned into the signs and should never make a social worker feel inadequate because they are not coping. There should be a clear structure to support for Social Workers who are experiencing burnout and emotional distress, rather than the social worker feeling like they have failed.”

What are the signs of social worker burnout?

The signs of social worker burnout can vary from person-to-person, so it is imperative that those in social work manager job roles take the time to understand each individual team member.

Stress triggers are different for everyone, but common signs of emotional distress include (but are not limited to) any of the following: feeling withdrawn, agitated or lethargic, having a lack of motivation or feeling overwhelmed/tearful. Burnout can also manifest itself in physical ways with sleep disruption, migraines or stomach pains common reasons for taking unexpected sick leave.

A social worker from Worcester says that the best way for social work managers to support their colleagues is by “giving them the space (both physical and psychological) and time to digest what they have experienced in their interactions with service users and other professionals. We are too busy ‘doing’ and not ‘being’ and process driven social work is demoralising and exhausting.”

Lucy from London suggests that perhaps social work training should be “re-evaluated and should include an element of therapy (as per psychotherapy trainees).” She suggests that “Social work is no less emotionally demanding than psychotherapy and often attracts people who have significant experiences of adversity which are unprocessed.”

What is being done to address these issues?

As we mentioned earlier, BASW have recently launched a new campaign to improve working conditions for social work practitioners, and we’ll be watching with interest to find out more about their campaign as new details are released.

We also spoke with Caroline Dinenage MP, Minister of State for Care about the issue of social worker burnout.

In an exclusive interview with us she said:

“I want social work to be a respected and valued profession, which supports people to remain in it for their whole career. I recognise the impact high workloads, stress and low morale has on recruitment and retention and we are taking steps to ensure our talented and hardworking social workers remain in the profession.

Alongside DfE we are making sure those entering the social work profession receive the best training possible. To smooth the transition from education to the realities of practice we introduced an Assessed Supported Year in Employment to provide social workers with valuable additional support during their first year in practice, benefitting over 20,000 child and family and adult social workers since 2012 and helping improve recruitment, retention and performance management.

For established social workers we are funding a range of assessment and development programmes to enable people to progress into more specialist or senior roles. And we are supporting social workers who have left the profession and want to return, through a Return to Social Work programme to train up to 100 social workers across three regions of England.

However, while government’s role is to create national standards and infrastructures to enable practice excellence and innovation, driving improvement in adult and children’s services needs to be led locally. Currently we are working with the Local Government Association to review the Standards for Employers to see where they can be strengthened to ensure all staff have the tools they need to do their job well.”

What do you think? Do you think the profession is paying enough attention to this issue? We’d love to hear your thoughts about how we can work together to provide suitable support for our colleagues and peers. Let us know your thoughts using the comments box below.
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