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This essay clarifies my understanding of the issue of ‘stress’, and some of the theories that have been developed around it. The relevance of the subject to practical issues however, can get lost in a welter of theory, and with this in mind I will attempt to manipulate my findings to the essay title. ‘Social services staff expect stress: finding ways of making a difference to peoples lives is challenging – and positive. But excess stress is demoralising and debilitating, and may affect the quality of judgements and of services provided’

Extract taken from the NISW Policy Briefing No. 12, Stress at Work, Sept. 1995 The concept of ‘stress’ has an obvious application to Social Work. Increasingly, Social Workers have to defend themselves to their managers, the public and the media when things ‘go wrong’. Many factors, alongside individual, public and sometimes departmental expectations of Social Worker ‘excellence’ can and do lead to Social Workers falling victim to high levels of stress.


Many people have studied the subject in the expectation that it will give them a better understanding of it, in order to devise strategies for managing it. Whilst there are several definitions of the word ‘stress’, for the purpose of this essay the definition below deems appropriate; “Stress results when individuals experience demands as exceeding their available resources, and as pushing them beyond physical and/or psychological stability” Cummings and Cooper (1979); Gardener (1988) in Braye and Preston-Shoot (1999)

Malim and Birch (1998) identified the entirety of ‘stress’ as being made up of two components, stressors and stress responses, the former being the stimuli that causes the stress, and the latter being the biological and physiological responses to the situation. Banyard (1999) added a dimension to this theory by emphasising the ‘uniqueness’ of the individual; taking physical and psychological components into account, thereby highlighting the complexities of defining and measuring ‘stressors’ and the ‘stress responses’.

Newton (1995) challenged the assumption that responsibility for managing stress rested on the individual, and argued that this theory did not appear to account for things ‘outside’ of an individuals’ control. This would appear to tie in with the theory of ‘external and internal stressors’, this an example of the external, where the stimulus for stress is conveyed/transmitted from things ‘beyond’ the control of the individual. By pinpointing the key components relating to Social Work, one could consider the profession over-wrought with ‘stressors’.

The institution itself is ‘dynamic’ in the fact that it is constantly changing. New legislation is introduced into the system, which, at times, appears to create conflicts in Social Work practices, for instance, between needs and rights of service users. The recent introduction of the Human Rights Act created ‘uncertainties’ for Social Workers and service users alike. ‘The pressure to accommodate to legislative changes and government philosophy can easily lead to neglect of purposes inspired by the professional value base and to unquestioning practice, unless space for debate is created’.

Braye and Preston Shoot (1999). It would be misleading to suggest that the number of reforms, aimed at establishing equality of opportunities and rights between different ‘groups’ of people, did not help to break down ‘stereotypical roles’ associated with employment however, Phillipson (1992) suggests that social welfare organisations ‘maintain the gendering of society’, and Dutt (1990) emphasises that ‘White power and privilege in relationships with black people… still underpin law and practices’. Dutt (1990).

Of disabled people Dalrymple and Burke emphasise ‘Even enlightened local authorities with clear equal opportunity statements often have municipal buildings which are inaccessible and support inadequate public transport systems. ‘ Dalrymple and Burke (2000). Redress for discrimination on grounds of race, gender or disability is still dependant upon an individual being prepared to pursue a case, if a challenge is forthcoming. The categorising of individuals based on physical characteristics applies extra pressure and stress on Social Workers and can have traumatic repercussions.

The various challenges that Social Work offers, is often one of the principle facets, which draw people into the profession however, Katz and Wykes suggest that generally, some people find it difficult to cope with uncertainty and that this, in turn, can cause stress Katz and Wykes (85) in Malim & Birch (98). Professor Michael Marmot of University College in London has been studying the effects of stress for many years. He believes people who lack control in their jobs are likely to have health problems related to stress.

It could be argued that Social Workers are controlled by several sources; firstly by the organisational structures, secondly by what resources are available and thirdly; by decreased autonomy and increased responsibility. Researchers found stress levels for staff were high because of lack of resources, not the nature of the job. Challenges such as dealing with difficult clients were the ‘…. major source of job satisfaction, where teams had the resources to meet clients’ needs’. (Community Care Magazine, 09/02/95) Many Social Workers feel they have divided loyalties, being no longer clear whether they serve individuals or the organisation.

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