How to deal with stress

A Social Work Union Guide

Stress can be positive. In short bursts it can be stimulating, allowing us to be highly productive. But when we are under stress, without any let up, it can have the opposite effect, leading to exhaustion and sometimes a lack of confidence in the decisions we make.

By the nature of the job, stress is a common feature of social work. It is a profession that attracts people who see the work not just as a way to pay the bills. As professionals, we’re our own worst enemies. We are very committed and we tend to put others first, more so than those working in other professions. For many social workers, the work is so bound up with their identity that if they feel they are failing in some way, or their work is criticised, they can feel it very intensely.

The Advice and Representation team handles calls about stress every day. But in the last few months the numbers of social workers seeking help for stress and anxiety-related problems has shot up. Some of our callers say they are drinking too much, others are taking anti-depressant drugs.

Worryingly, other social workers have admitted to self-harming. At the moment people are uncertain about their security, their jobs, their future. These pressures, added to what is already a stressful job, are too much for some. About 40% of my cases feature stress, depression or anxiety.

Even if people feel their jobs are fairly secure, they are still under enormous pressure. We are all feeling it. We’re getting an increase in calls because of the cuts. A common issue is that vacancies are not being filled so existing staff are having to take on the work and they are struggling to do it all. Some people do not dare to take time off because they worry they will then be seen as failing.

Some of the calls we get are just from people wanting to vent their frustrations but others are from those who have let the problems worsen and they have made a mistake or been criticised. They will often say, “I have been telling my manager in supervision that I can’t cope but nothing has been done.”

Unfortunately, by the time a lot of people ring us, they are at the stage where they want to raise a grievance or even feel they cannot go on in their job any more and have to leave. As such, a big part of tackling stress is in trying to address the symptoms early. We would always advise you talk to your manager informally first before problems escalate. If nothing comes from this approach, our advice line should be one of your first considerations. It is often much easier to help, to untangle the spaghetti, if you are outside the situation. That’s where we can help.

As part of identifying stress early, it helps to look out for signs you may be struggling. Not sleeping, not being unable to concentrate or make decisions, feeling restless and agitated or exhausted, becoming emotional more easily, experiencing stomach problems, loss of appetite or eating or drinking too much – one or all could be strong indicators that you need to take action for your own health.

Taking action could involve a number of measures but above all entails ensuring you have clear periods in your life where work isn’t the focus of your attention.

Make time for yourself by getting away from work and pursing interests of your own – whether exercise, socialising or simply listening to music or reading.

Finally, prioritise your work because if you end up taking a long period of time on sickness absence then your service users will be left even less well supported than you feel able to manage now.


Stress – what to do:

  • Talk to your manager and make dated notes that you have informed them about how you are feeling.
  • Make sure you take your annual leave/any TOIL owed.
  • Overtime is a fact of life for many social workers but limit it to a manageable amount.
  • Find ways of relaxing – take time for yourself in something away from work.
  • DON’T take work home with you. Try to switch off when you leave the office.

Published : 2nd January 2012*

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* Although BASW has prepared the information contained within Social Work Knowledge with all due care and updates the information regularly, BASW does not warrant or represent that the information is free from errors or omission. Whilst the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact on the accuracy of the information. The information may change without notice and BASW is not in any way liable for the accuracy of any information printed and stored or in any way interpreted and used by a user.