Kate van Heugten, PhD, (pictured left) is Senior Lecturer, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Canterbury, New Zealand. She has extensive experience as a social worker and supervisor in statutory and private practice, and her research interests focus on professional and workplace issues, including workplace stress and bullying.

In this special interview, the UK social worker and blogger behind Fighting Monsters asks Dr van Heugten about some of the factors that make the social work profession particularly prone to stress, and about her new book, Social Work Under Pressure, which provides a wealth of coping strategies to prevent burnout in the workplace.

Note: In the interest of protecting anonymity, the interviewer will be referred to as ‘MonsterTalk’ after their Twitter alias: @monstertalk.

MonsterTalk: Why do you think that some of the human services and the so-called ‘caring’ services seem to suffer from such high stress levels and bullying in the workplace? Are we not able, as a profession, to ‘practice what we preach’ when it comes to self-care and treating colleagues with dignity?

KvH: It is perplexing to many people that there are high levels of bullying in caring professions. In my research I found there are many possible causes and I discuss these in a chapter in the book, as well as in articles I have published. To summarise some of my findings and ideas, I would say that, although it is tempting to blame individuals for being ‘bullies’, in fact many of the causes are organisational. For example, managers and supervisors face pressures from above to manage ‘risk’ with insufficient resources. They may not have had sufficient people management training, and lack support for themselves. Colleagues who are bystanders or witnesses to bullying also often simply don’t know what to do to be supportive of targets, or are afraid to be bullied in turn. Overall, I think we pay too little attention to ‘caring for the carers’, ourselves and one another.

MonsterTalk: Is there something intrinsic in the profession itself that makes it more prone to stress, burnout and fatigue? Do you think any other similar professions in human services, such as medicine and nursing, might have very different experiences to social workers in this respect?

KvH: This is an interesting question. It is possible that social workers may be somewhat more prone to stress and burnout because their relationship with clients is so central to their work. Their work efforts revolve around empathy and understanding of service users’ situations and this can be draining. They may not have been assisted to know how to handle this inherent stress in their training, and they may not be aware that setting boundaries is critical to self-care. Social workers do deal with very traumatic situations and events, often with very limited support. The research I undertook, as well as the international literature, all suggest that good supportive supervision is essential and that too many practitioners have not been getting that. That is not a problem intrinsic in the profession, however—It is a problem in how social work is supported, and this needs to change.

MonsterTalk: I was impressed by the way you built your own experiences into the narrative of the book and, in a sense, ‘opened up’ to your readers about issues that had affected your own stress and coping mechanisms through your working life. Leading on from this, one of the things you emphasise is building boundaries between work and home life – but the nature of the job can make this very difficult. How important do you think it is for social workers in frontline practice to have external supports?

KvH: Thank you. Yes, I think it is helpful to have supports within and outside the workplace. I think that, for example, mentors can be especially good at assisting workers in maintaining work/life balance. They don’t have any motives other than to support your professional development and that can be quite refreshing.

MonsterTalk: Another aspect that interested me was looking at the reasons why we went into this profession, and you talk about people who have had difficult past experiences using and examining these in a social work setting. Do you think that people with specific experiences of being a user of social services support can make better social workers?

KvH: I wouldn’t say they are necessarily better, but they can certainly make very good social workers. I think it is key to have worked through any difficult past experiences to the extent that you are no longer overwhelmed, and that your own emotional responses don’t prevent you from apprehending how other people’s situations may be different from yours. Having at least some experience of help seeking is important, so that we have an inkling of what it is like to be in that position. But we can’t hope (nor would we wish to) have an insider perspective on every trauma facing service users. Good empathic capacity coupled with good knowledge and skills is ‘good enough’.

MonsterTalk: I know the book is aimed both at manager and practitioner, but I wonder if a part of the reasons for the high levels of stress in the profession are due to the fact that many managers become managers almost by ‘default’ – as a result of wanting to progress professionally rather than because of any skill at management or supervision – and sometimes without even any training. Do you think a good social worker will always make a good manager?

KvH: I agree that good frontline social workers don’t always make good managers. They don’t necessarily want to be managers either, but may feel pushed into this career path because of their organisation’s needs or because there are no other progression/promotion opportunities. I do think management training is essential and not just any management training but appropriate human service management training. Supervision is also a specialism. Having experienced good supervision is a start, but not sufficient.

MonsterTalk: Do you think it’s possible to have a long career as an efficient frontline practitioner without moving into management or away from the frontline into the academic world? Or, what does it take to have a long and successful career on the front line of social work?

KvH: Yes, I think this should be entirely possible. But for this to happen one needs good support so that frontline work remains enjoyable, and provides opportunities for professional development and tangible rewards. Rewards include not just money but opportunities to develop specialist expertise, and to advance in status. I write about some of these ideas in the book.

MonsterTalk: Do you think more self-care and management skills should be taught in social work courses on the basis that much of the information you share is transferable to other settings?

KvH: Yes, I think we need to assist our students to understand the need for self-care. Management information can be introduced at any level, but management skills are an advanced speciality that could be best taught at a graduate or postgraduate level.

MonsterTalk: Finally, if someone is enjoying their job but is working within an unsupportive team, do you think it would be better to look for another job or do you think it might be something worth persisting with?

KvH: I think this is a very difficult situation to be in. I have spoken with a number of people who were in mourning over leaving jobs they loved, but in which they could not continue due to being in unsupportive teams. Individual situations are best considered carefully with a support person. In general terms, if you are meeting with success in bringing about changes in the team atmosphere, it may be worth persisting. If, despite your best efforts (perhaps with outside support) there is no or little change, then the personal cost of working in an unsupportive team may be too high. The evidence would suggest it is better to get out before your energies are too depleted. Remember that you can still do good work elsewhere.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011.

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