Managing Stress in Social Work

The idea for this post came from a brief conversation on Twitter last night when a social worker asked about how we manage stress at work.

There was a fine Q and A in the Guardian a few weeks ago on their Local Government Network site which collated the opinions of people with a lot more experience than I but I have developed some ideas that I personally use and thought I would share them in more than 140 characters. Twitter, believe it or not, has its limits. I’m sure and hope that people add to my list with their own techniques. This is an entirely personal list!

I’m fortunate enough to work in a good, supportive team with excellent managers who have a realistic understanding of workload pressure. It is important for me to acknowledge that my stresses are not about poor management or a difficult team which may lead to a whole different range of tactics about managing stress.

Supervision is, of course, important but I am taking regular, good quality supervision as a ‘given’ as that is my current experience. It is important that supervision is more than a list of updating cases but is a chance to discuss the ways the work impacts us personally and professionally. A chance to both reflect and learn. My supervisor tells me that she gets as much from our supervision sessions as I do and that is entirely right.

Apart from supervision with my manager and my other supervision with a senior social worker in a different team,  I’m very strong on immediate debriefing. I think it is an absolutely necessary part of the job. Without the time and space to debrief, without that immediate opportunity to hold some of those thoughts together and discuss them, you begin to internalise some of the pain, sadness and distress that you inevitably will see at work and more dangerously, you take it home. Stress can’t help but affect your family and those around you if you let it. That’s why it has to be ‘left at work’ as far as possible.

I call ‘debriefing’ the immediate reflection or observation as opposed to the most considered reflection that comes during a ‘proper’ supervision period. Debriefing is often with colleagues who are around in the office. We are good at helping each other out with this.  If there is no-one around in the office that is able to talk, I will tend to write some thoughts down on a notepad I carry around. Sometimes I might do this in a cafe between visits. It helps me detach some of the responsibility I have from a situation and see it through ‘third person’ eyes.

I manage stress much better now. I detach home from work more and I am far less likely to bring the stress and work-related anxiety home. Part of that is because I have space to debrief and discuss while at work. Sometimes you want someone to reassure you outside the managerial system, sometimes you just need to talk about what you have heard and seen and the best people to listen can be those who are attuned to the culture of the same workplace and environment.

No-0ne quite  understands some of the pressures of the job or at least it can feel that way, if they aren’t doing it themselves.

I have also tried meditation and mindfulness techniques which personally, I’ve found very very helpful. My interest in mindfulness actually started when I was writing about it on this site and I thought it sounded useful personally so I bought some books and MP3s (I was going to write ‘tapes’ there but that dates me!). I then attended a short day course locally to see if ‘proper’ instruction would be useful. I find taking the time each day to relax actively has really helped my mindset. It also helped me a lot when I was recovering from surgery.

MIND have a good resource page and details of courses both online and local. I’d really recommend it, even if you are normally quite sceptical of some of ‘these things’. I was.

Exercise is a classic one. I have been a member of a gym in the past but I didn’t stick with it. It works for some people. I like swimming but I find it hard to build in before work and after work I get tired. But I do like walking. I can walk for hours and days. Nothing ‘releases’ me as much as a long walk. Sometimes in the city and sometimes in the park. I can be alone with my music or in company. I always find it helps me to gather my thoughts.

Most important as well is to have interests and involvements outside work. They can be work-related. I write a lot about social work and social care and read a lot of related books but I still see that as a ‘discrete interest’ as it helps me in ways beyond work.  There are other things I enjoy though whether it’s cooking or playing my ukulele or playing on my Xbox (wow, I LOVE the Kinect), I could also possibly be the only person who plays ‘Lips‘ while on my own at home (it’s one of those karaoke singing games – enormous fun!).

I also have taken many evening classes over the years, from ukulele playing to Art History to Spanish to Greek to Basic HTML to Creative Writing.  I enjoy learning new things and I enjoy meeting new people who work in completely different areas.

I also like to take advantage of being in London and am a member at the British Museum, Kew Gardens,  South Bank Centre … and London Zoo but we have a wealth of museums, galleries and theatres which can be accessed relatively cheaply if not free of charge. I need to look after myself build and work on an identity that is more than ‘work’. So when the stresses build up at work I have other aspects of my life to build on.

What about you? What do you do to work on stress?

19 thoughts on “Managing Stress in Social Work

  1. I agree with the title, it is about managing stress. It is not realistic to imagine that working with vulnerable people in the health and social care sector can be without stress. But with support we can develop resilience.

    This week has seen a focus on workplaces pressure in regards to mental health in particular with the high profile resignation of a top flight cricketer. Generally people have been supportive of him.

    Unfortunately yourself and him are more often that not in the minority situation, and lots of folk work in this filed and others without support.

    In terms of looking after one’s own emotional and mental health I would urge folk to be very selfish and look after themselves.

    You provide a great role model Misses Monster, particularly for newly qualified health and social care staff. I think your blog should be on the required reading lists for them whilst they are training.

    kind regards


  2. This is a great post; dealing effectively with stress is vital to longevity within this profession, and to long term personal health.
    My experience so far is poor supervision – which I feel impacts greatly on my Practice.
    I agree with you re. de-briefing; my only support has been from colleagues, from their sw experience and also just another perspective, or even just to vent off some steam within a non-judgemental environment.
    Being an nqsw brings up so many more issues; will I be viewed as unable to cope, do I have a lack of emotional containment for the work I do – although this is something I feel we can’t possibly train for at Uni due to the human stresses and pain we often have to shoulder.
    My de-stress is twice weekly exercise class, which I am so tired I could gladly miss but motivate myself to go along to anyway. Also, walking – Such a good way to clear the cobwebs. Reading is something I miss, but can also take you to another world. Self-discipline to make time to de-stress is important, we are not superhuman or robots and need ‘You Time’ to function as normal human beings.
    Great post – thank you.

  3. I have gotten into hot yoga over the past year. That helps a ton.
    Also just spending time with my son.
    And watching nonsensical TV.
    I also have started following other social workers this past year through blogs and through Twitter. It helps to know that I’m not alone out there because it often feels that way. Especially because I am not supervised by a social worker, and my supervisor rarely has time for anyone.

  4. Pingback: Managing Stress in Social Work - Fighting Monsters - Member blogs - Social Work Blog - Carespace from Community Care

  5. This is such an important topic and such a critical thing that we need to do for ourselves….for how we can we be there for others if we do not care for ourselves?

    Thank you for sharing your tips for managing and coping with your stress. It’s great that you have a supportive supervisor as well as supportive colleagues. Somehow I think that this is not the case for all social workers…

    The Zur Institute has put together a wonderful paper on this topic with many helpful suggestions. It’s called: Taking Care Of The Caretaker: How To Avoid Psychotherapists’ Burnout. And you can access it at:

    Take care,

  6. Thank you all for your great suggestions. I want to write more about Twitter in a couple of weeks as it’s a really great way of more immediate communication and that looks like a great link, Dorlee – thanks for that 🙂

  7. Thanks for writing about such an important topic. Like you, I’ve found that mindfulness is an incredibly helpful and powerful. I’ve also used Tonglen to help me cope with some of the powerlessness/helplessness I sometimes feel when confronted with the stories of some of the awful things people have lived through.

    At our school (University at Buffalo) created a self-care starter kit for our MSW students that might be of interest to some people. Also, Dr. Brian Bride just did a lecture on secondary traumatic stress: the video, Powepoints and handouts can be found online here under his name. In his research he found that almost half the child welfare workers in his state were showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as a function of their work. It certainly points to the need for good supervision, self-care and stress management skills in social workers.

  8. I stumbled about the no bad language demand in your self description, but was unable to respond there, and after reading more I land here responding to you.
    More than some mannerism (nice/latin: nescius/ignorant) I wonder if a sheltered go between patronising is not a main stress factor to humanity.
    Instead of pleasing hierarchical achievement structures, would it not be truly a stress reduction to reflect about the own function in a psychopathic society structure?
    Are social workers and other administrating those who suffer from a reality determinate by a profit driven madness, to fit in structures set up by these madness, a part of the problem or the solution?

    • On the presumption that your questioning is socratic in its models, I will leave the questions hanging for readers to consider in their own time and in their own way.
      Thank you for your contribution.

  9. I wish that good supervision was a given, but I find that my students too often do without (sometimes not even fully understanding what they’re missing, b/c they’ve never known it). I like your distinction between debriefing and supervision; again, too often I see social workers having to do with one or the other, and I agree that there can be significant implications of that gap. And I’ve also noticed differences for social workers who work in primarily non-social work settings, where not only are they sometimes the primary “absorbers” of the challenges and the associated trauma, but they also may lack colleagues and supervisors who can help them deal in ethical ways. Stress is obviously an issue in many professions, with serious personal effects, but, for social workers perhaps particularly, we also have to acknowledge the impact of the stress we either manage (or don’t) on those we serve, too–which makes finding healthy strategies an ethical imperative.

    • Thanks Melinda – the reason I took good supervision as a given is that I could have written thousands of words about what to do with poor supervision and the problem it is and can be and needed to limit my words and post somehow!
      I do think it is absolutely vital and is something I hope to be able to come back to.
      I agree absolutely about the need for us to take care of our own stress managing tactics and it is something I’ve definitely found has got better over time and practice experience for me. I worry though because some of the social work managers I have come across as some of the worst ‘people managers’ and that just makes a difficult job more difficult.

  10. As old pre-socratic who knows the system from the inside since long and has the feeling some things never truly change to the better, I could wonder if the nice off attitude is post platonist , based on his hierarchy support, and soul/body division, who leads to such concepts like them/us.
    But I remain in the question, how much gets is the own role in an abusive system subject of question, in study, in practice, in supervision, or ignored ?

    • I don’t believe it is. That is the importance of reflective practice and good supervision. But thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  11. “Reality shows” on the television (project runway, tabitha’s salon takeover, cooking challenge shows; Sit.coms. such as 2-1/2 men, Little mosque on the prairie, British Comedies — last of the summer wine; Volunteering which has nothing to do with social work (scottish cultural society); hanging with my sister and laughing ALOT; hugs from my husband; coffee (every work day morning) with my colleagues.

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