Stress Awareness Week from The Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust

Young girl sitting in a forest

A little late, this contribution to Stress Awareness week is from The Social Workers’ Benevolent Trust (SWBT), established in 1971 and an independent charity which offers grants to qualified Social Workers in need and facing hardship : we’re a sister organization of BASW which generously provides the bulk of our income and administrative support.

It’s run on a voluntary basis by a group of trustees, all Social Workers, and we’ve seen demand for grants sky-rocket over the last few years whilst, like a lot of charities, income has flat-lined so we’re endlessly devising new ways of fund-raising to meet demand : currently, our individual grants are around the £300 mark but we would wish them to be much higher to meet identified need.

Although stress can be viewed in a positive light – as a way to get things done and, often, on time – and a life without stress would appear a little unreal, for the majority of people stress is textbook-defined as a “response by an individual when they perceive a lack of equilibrium between the demands placed upon them and their ability to meet those demands, which, over a period of time, leads to ill-

From a reading of our applications, stress factors can, all too easily, tip into burn-out, mental and physical illness, bankruptcy, unemployment and homelessness – to name but a few. These profound states of distress and despair can have profound knock-on effects for relatives, dependents and children living in chronic states of insecurity.

Given that we collect data, what can we learn about stress from those applying for grants? Over a period ending in July 2023, 72% of applicants were new ( as opposed to repeat ) applicants with 36% in the age range 30-39 years and 33% aged 40-49 years : the majority, then, are middle-aged and in mid-career struggling with the cost of living and accumulating large amounts of debt, often facing job insecurity and dependent on friends, family, credit and pay-day loans to survive.

Organisations such as Citizen’s Advice, StepChange Turn2Us and others undertake valuable work attempting to keep individuals and families financially afloat and we regularly signpost applicants to seek financial advice when the going gets tough.

In respect of geographical spread, it does appear that those practitioners and managers living in areas such as London, the South East of England and the North West are particularly vulnerable as property prices, both owner-occupier and rental (to include here the threat of eviction), are sky-high coupled with “negative” salary growth across the board : an article in The Guardian in this period and reviewing salary growth across nine identified professions described Social Work as having the “lowest level of all”.

Turning now to the occupational context, it does appear that independent practitioners, those employed by independent agencies and those working part-time ( and often in receipt of Universal Credit to top-up income ) can be particularly susceptible to loss/suspension of employment when personal or professional circumstances implode – against a backdrop of the after-effects of Covid and the reduction in Local Authority finances.

In this adverse climate, the need for workers’ representation by a Trade Union or professional association appears paramount: close to home, our sister organisations The Social Workers’ Union ( SWU ) and BASW – with its Advice and Representation Service ( A & R ) – provide an excellent service but, of course, other providers are available.

For individuals experiencing stress there are numerous internet and off-the-shelf strategies available and most employers are duty-bound to provide employee counselling services and/or employee assistance programmes ( EAPs ) as they, too, are desperate to recruit and retain staff.

These services may be of particular help to those staff newly-qualified and/or working from home who may miss out on the “office model” with its daily and unplanned interaction with colleagues and informal supervision – perhaps the building blocks of professional resilience and where further research is required?

Returning now to the textbook definition at the top of this piece and with its focus on “the individual”, perhaps we now need to take a wider look at the extent to which Social Work as a profession is under stress – together with the ability of our employers to promote and protect its employees and, most importantly, continue to provide high-quality resources for its service users, those with “lived” experience, who are at the heart of what we do?

RP : 25.04.2024.