The cost of not promoting the health and wellbeing of social workers

Mike Bush retired social worker

Care giving depends on how we support the care givers, says Mike Bush

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 17 October, 2022

The social wellbeing of others depends upon many factors including, crucially, the quality of care available to vulnerable citizens.

This is itself highly dependent on the state of mind of the social workers themselves. If social workers are stressed, fatigued, troubled, burdened, burnt out or distracted, they will not be in a position to listen, focus and attend fully to the needs of those they care for.

It is well understood that caring is a stressful role and the rates of sickness and absence, mental health problems and even suicide are higher among caring professionals compared to the general population.

A person in a vulnerable situation needs above all to be listened to, to be attended to and to be thought about in a compassionate and personalised way. If the professional they are turning to is themselves not in a state of mind to be able to tune in, then care giving is more likely to fail, creating a vicious cycle or a ‘revolving door syndrome’ of ineffective or even failed care.

This is not just about the training or competence of social workers but also about their energy levels, mental state and focus.

The mind of the social worker can be undermined by many factors including:

  • Burnout
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Bureaucracy
  • Distractions
  • Poor or limited supervision and back-up
  • Poor and/or uncompassionate management
  • Lack of support and validation in the role
  • Lack of resources to do the job
  • Unrealistic expectations or targets

There is a danger here of seeing any lapse in the quality of care as primarily an issue of competence or moral character of staff when in fact this is far from the truth. With some inevitable exceptions, most people who enter the caring professions are of above average compassion and are highly motivated to help others.

Too often, it seems, the cause of stress and burnout among social workers is excessive workloads and a lack of support and resources.

But rather than address these structural issues, some employers blame staff for not being ‘resilient’ or question their competency in the role.

This is a deeply troubling passing of the buck. For in the final analysis, care giving will only be as good as the quality of the organisational culture and the promotion of health and wellbeing in the social work ‘professional family’ that supports the care givers.

If social workers are not cared for by their professional family, care cannot be sustained over the longer term and the care system could even eventually become toxic.

The quality of support received by social workers in the workplace is hard to measure accurately, but high absence and sickness rates tell their own story and there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests a need to address a deep and wide problem in the cultures in which social work professionals are expected to work.

Apart from the human cost to social workers in terms of their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and the consequential detrimental effect on their ability to provide safe, competent, compassionate care to vulnerable people, there is also the high financial cost involved in sickness absence to employers

I have been campaigning, writing articles, book chapters and working hard for years to address the worsening problems of work-related trauma and distress in the social work professional workforce. I myself experienced an incredibly bad mental breakdown as a result of ridiculous work pressures and a bullying boss. From this, I came to realise that so many others were experiencing the same or similar problems in social work and other caring professions.

I will be joining with other colleagues to set up a website and helpline – when funds are available – to protect and promote the wellbeing of social and health care workers, plus encourage good management practice.

Mike Bush is a retired senior mental health social worker and visiting lecturer in mental health