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Social workers operate in a changing and challenging environment. Dealing with crisis within families, children who have suffered abuse and adults who are no longer able to lead independent lives is part of the everyday caseload for social work practitioners. The responsibility that goes with making decisions and offering solutions in these areas can prove stressful.

Against this backdrop, the profession can also attract negative press, highlighting cases which may not been dealt with as effectively or decisively as some observers and commentators feel they could have been, while legislation is often changing and budgeting cutbacks for the social care sector are commonplace.

Key to continue to operate effectively lies in recognising stress and managing it.

Survey gauges stress levels in social work

It is hardly surprising that levels of stress within the social work profession are high, a situation confirmed by a survey conducted towards the end of last year, which sought to gauge the levels of stress in the profession. 

The study – among 2000-plus practitioners - found that 80% said stress was affecting their ability to do their job with the top three causes listed as spiralling caseloads, poor supervision and bullying by colleagues or managers. It also emerged that one out of every 10 social workers would consider leaving the profession because of the stress they face.

However, many – while acutely aware of the stress issues - were dealing with it, either in their own way, or collectively with colleagues and advisors to help them manage the challenges they face on a daily basis within their respective roles and continue to perform effectively and admirably.

Personal cost of stress

Other studies focus on the impact stress has on a personal level. Social workers from a Scottish local authority, interviewed by a social work lecturer from the University of West Scotland, spoke passionately about their commitment to protecting children and the satisfaction found in working with families. But they acknowledged the levels of stress in their profession, sometimes had a personal cost. 

They spoke of disturbed sleep; diet affected due to working late and missing meals; an impact on personal relationships; and the demands of child protection social work meaning the need to respond to emergencies beyond contracted hours. Particular cases haunted workers - babies with unexplained injuries, older children experiencing severe neglect, for example.

Importance of peer support

What also emerged from a number of studies was the importance of peer support.
And within their dealing mechanism for stress, many practitioners reflected on why they did the job in the first place; that they were making important decisions about people’s lives and helping resolve difficult issues; and were making a significant difference.

Preparing for stress in the workplace

When stress becomes an issue, taking steps to address it at the earliest opportunity is critical. For some, that began during the study phase. In order to prepare students for a career in social work, the University of Bedfordshire offered some practical tips on self-care and coping with stress. 

Suggestions included: reflective supervision enabling the trainee and qualified social worker to learn lessons from practice as well as more about themselves to build resilience and manage stressful work; time management training; having the right support mechanisms in place from colleagues, family and friends; recognising that emotional awareness is a key quality in resilient people; taking time out to relax; and being positive and focussing on the rewards of being a social worker.

How to manage levels of stress

There are a variety of ways in which social workers can deal with stress. Mental health social worker Mark Drinkwater highlighted a series of steps social workers could take in this respect. 

* Identify the cause of stress. Take a few deep breaths and try to think about what is making you feel that way. Only then will you be in a position to tackle the causes and see what you might be able to change and taking control of it by perhaps having a supervision session with your line manager where you can address this together;
* Focus on the positives, connect with people and actively seek out the support of your colleagues;
* Manage time effectively;
* Avoid unhealthy coping strategies such as smoking or alcohol;
* Challenge yourself by setting new goals and find sometime for yourself;
* Build exercise into your daily routine;
* Learn to relax.

Social work will remain a stressful job but balancing the challenges with rewards, managing stress, seeking support and turning the negatives into positives can make a big difference and help.

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