Stressing vulnerability

A senior lecturer in social work wonders who gains from the preoccupation with workplace stress.

Ken McLaughlin

Topics Politics

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Is being a social worker bad for your health? As ‘stress at work’ becomes the big issue for social services employees, you would think so.

Throughout the 1990s and into the noughties, there has been ever-increasing concern about workplace stress in the personal social services field in the UK – as captured in the rising number of court cases where ex-employees sue their authority for failing to take adequate measures to protect their health and wellbeing.

There was a defining moment in 1994, when John Walker, the manager of a child protection team, sued his employers at Northumberland Council after they retired him on the grounds of permanent ill-health – arguing that they had failed in their duty of care owed to him under common law and had made him ill. Too much and too stressful work were held to be contributing factors in Walker’s illness, and he gained an out-of-court settlement from the council (1). Since 1994, there has been a steady increase in the number of such cases – with local authorities no longer able to ignore the issue of stress and its consequences.

The perception given by Walker’s and other cases is that workplace stress levels are rising, and that therapeutic intervention is needed to improve the workforce’s mental health. Recent reports claim that violence and abuse directed at social services staff have reached ‘horrendous’ levels, leading to even higher levels of stress and related physical and mental health problems.

In the personal social services field, 54 percent of respondents to a study carried about by Community Care magazine in 1999 claimed to have been ‘violently attacked’ and 49 percent claimed to be suffering severe levels of personal stress, and they cite research from the National Institute for Social Work that found that 75 percent claimed to have suffered verbal abuse in the course of their work (2). Another study found that 72 percent of staff were showing signs of ‘psychiatric morbidity’ (3).

But such statistics are far from being methodologically sound. Some surveys into workplace violence define violence and abuse so broadly that it covers just about every unpleasant encounter with a client. According to the British Association of Social Workers, violence can be anything from ‘serious assault’ and ‘murder’ to ‘verbal abuse’ and ‘threatening behaviour’ (4). According to a government-sponsored body, violence and abuse ‘is taken to include verbal abuse or threats, threatening behaviour, any assault (and any apprehension of unlawful violence)’, and even ‘what may seem like minor incidents’ (5).

Despite the vague definitions of assault at work, many local authorities have implemented stress management schemes to identify ‘stress-inducing factors’ and to develop staff awareness of its causes and symptoms. The New Labour government has set up a National Task Force on Violence against Social Care Staff (6) – while Community Care magazine ran a campaign titled No Fear, with the aim of highlighting and combating workplace violence and stress (7).

So are stress levels higher today than in the past? In truth, it is impossible to make such a comparison, as the discourse of stress is a fairly recent phenomenon. As one critic of ‘the colonising power of stress’ explains, the ability to express ‘stress’ depends on people learning the language of a therapeutic culture – where problems are articulated through the prism of mental health and their impact on an individual’s mental wellbeing – which is far more widespread today than it was 10, 15 or 20 years ago (8).

But there is more to this than just learning a new, more therapeutic language. What is happening is that all kinds of problems are being viewed as mental health issues, particularly in the social services field. Interpersonal and work relations are now being reinterpreted and discussed in this way. So managing the public/private divide, dealing with the most disadvantaged members of society, tackling child abuse, too much work and heavy caseloads have all been cited as causes of stress (and even the bosses are not immune, with one social services director bemoaning the ‘stresses at the top’) (9).

But none of these pressures are new to social services staff, who have always had heavy and demanding workloads. Today, however, it seems that employees are increasingly encouraged to see themselves as vulnerable and not quite able to cope with the rigours of everyday life or work without some help. Such a view does little to improve life in the workplace or work processes within social services – and it doesn’t help supposedly stressed-out employees either.

The proponents of the ‘stressful workplace’ have a diminished view of people’s ability to cope with unfortunate and untoward incidents. So according to some stress experts, even telephone calls or letters can be abusive, especially if they are of a sexist or racist nature – and as one concerned writer explained, ‘it is rare for a social worker not to have been subjected to any of the above and, as a consequence, have suffered some psychological effect’ (10). The use of the word ‘suffered’ here shows that the writer sees such experiences as always negative and potentially damaging.

This view undermines the notion that social workers can deal with problems by themselves on their own terms – and portrays clients as the cause of staff’s problems.

The new focus on stress does little for work-overloaded staff. Much of the therapeutic intervention in the stressful workplace focuses on issues that employees themselves do not necessarily consider to be their biggest problems. So while both central and local government focus on violence between clients and social services staff, one study of 243 social workers found that violence was not cited as a leading contributor to stress (11). Another, larger study found that out of 1391 social workers questioned, over half (687) had considered leaving the profession, but only 72 cited violence as a factor in their decision. Where stress was seen as a problem, it was mostly in relation to lack of resources, the pressures of understaffing, and too much work (12).

As one researcher into social services and stress recently commented: ‘Most stress was caused by lack of resources and inability to provide the standard of service staff would like.’ (13)

The focus on mental health and stress at work is unlikely to improve life for social workers – the more they are told they lack the ability to cope, the more likely they are to internalise such beliefs. And turning to a workplace counsellor is unlikely to help either, as the rapid growth in counselling schemes (commonly known as Employee Assistance Programmes) is not matched by any independent evidence that they are effective. Nonetheless, this hasn’t stopped counselling programmes spreading to cover 1,695,000 employees in 775 organisations, many of them local authorities (14).

Of course, it’s easier to provide a workplace counsellor than it is to improve the standard of public services. Streamlining services and cutting back on bureaucracy really could make social workers’ jobs a bit easier and give the public less reason to vent their frustration at the inadequacies of public services on frontline staff. But when this isn’t happening, broadening the definition of stress and highlighting social workers’ vulnerability won’t help anybody.

Ken McLaughlin is a senior lecturer in social work at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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(1) Walker v Northumberland County Council 1994

(2) See Community Care magazine, 22 to 28 July 1999

(3) ‘Psychological distress in staff of a social services district office: a pilot study’, J Caughey, British Journal of Social Work, 1996, 26, Issue 3

(4) See Community Care magazine, 22 to 28 July 1999

(5) ‘A Safer Place: National Task Force on Violence Against Social Care Staff’, Department of Health, London, 2001

(6) ‘A Safer Place: National Task Force on Violence Against Social Care Staff’, Department of Health, London, 2001

(7) See Community Care magazine, 22 to 28 July 1999

(8) ‘Stress discourse and individualization’, T Newton, in Controversies in Psychotherapy and Counselling, C Feltham, London, Sage, 1999

(9) Stress in Social Work, R Davies (ed), London, Jessica Kingsley, 1998

(10) ‘Public pressure: Private Stress’, C Wilmott, in R Davies, Stress in Social Work, London, Jessica Kingsley, 1998, p24

(11) Predictors of stress amongst social workers: An empirical study, JA Collings and PJ Murray, London, British Association of Social Workers, 1996

(12) Cited in ‘No Health, No Service’, A Kutek, in Stress in Social Work, R Davies (ed), London, Jessica Kingsley, 1998

(13) Social Services: Working under pressure, S Balloch, J Mclean and M Fisher, Bristol, The Policy Press, 1999, p83

(14) ‘Employee assistance programmes: the emperors new clothes of stress management?’, cited in British Journal of Guidance and Counselling, AR Arthur, vol28, no4

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Topics Politics


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