Social workers’ stress epidemic feared

Unions and council managers have warned of an epidemic of stress among social workers after the head of one of the country’s biggest social work departments said his staff currently take an average of five weeks off sick each year.

Staff in Birmingham are signed off ill for an average of 24.9 days a year – almost three-and-a-half times the national average for all industries – the council said. Nationally, 10% of social workers took more than 20 days sick leave every 12 months, according to separate research.

Colin Tucker, head of children’s services at Birmingham, said he was going public to raise awareness of the extreme pressures faced by the profession, particularly in the wake of the Baby P case. Stress, or anxiety and depression, was the biggest single factor for absences, he added.

Overwork was a major issue, he said, with between 15% and 20% of posts in the department vacant at any one time. Matters had worsened since social workers in Haringey, north London, were castigated for failing to save baby Peter Connolly, who died in August 2007.

“What the Baby Peter situation has done, in my view, is cause a loss of nerve amongst other agencies, which is reflected in a much higher level of referrals to the child protection team. In one area, Aston, just one team alone now deals with more than 700 referrals a month.”

Unison, the trade union which represents many social workers, said it was increasingly concerned about stress.

Helga Pile, Unison’s national officer for social workers, said: “People tell us they’re not confident discussing problems about stress, thinking it could be used against them, as if they can’t handle the job.”

The problem was a nationwide one, she said, and getting worse. “Since the Baby Peter case there have been many more referrals involving court appearances. Because of the pressure of work a lot of staff end up preparing court papers at home, or even on holiday. It’s something that just absolutely has to be done before you stand up in front of a judge,” she said.

The case had also led to “a marked increase in the level of hostility” suffered by social workers, Pile added.

Another common complaint is that while social workers carry a lot of personal responsibility, many complain of having little autonomy. “One member was telling me that even for something as simple as referring someone to meals on wheels she had to go through two separate tiers of management. This feeling of having no control can be very stressful.”

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said the government was seeking to address many of these issues with a major reform of the profession, announced last month. “We’re addressing historic recruitment and retention problems but let’s be realistic – there is no quick fix to the challenges faced by frontline social workers over the last year,” he said. “Our social work task force set out groundbreaking long-term reforms to training, career structure, workloads and pay to transform the profession – all of which ministers accepted.”

Research carried out in September by the Liberal Democrats, based on freedom of information requests, found that social workers nationally take almost 12 days off sick each on average, while the profession had 2,700 vacancies.

One social worker’s story

Claire (not her real name), spent six months off from her job as a local authority social worker due to stress.

“I’d been there for 12 years and loved the job. But they just kept piling on the work. It was a real top-down management climate. I couldn’t do my job properly because they overloaded me so much. It didn’t matter what I said to them, they just didn’t listen.

“It was so stressful. I ended up having these dreadful stomach problems. I had to go to the doctor and get medication because I was so ill. I also went to see a heart specialist because I was having palpitations, as well as sleepless nights.

“I was off for six months and then the council took disciplinary action against me. I took legal action with the help of the union and got an out-of-court settlement. I’ve become an independent social worker now and it’s absolutely fine. My track record is excellent. I love the job and I do it very well.”