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Social Work Under Pressure: How to Overcome Stress, Fatigue and Burnout in the Workplace.




Van Heugten, K. (2011) London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. 222pp. pbk. [pound sterling]19.99

ISBN 978-1-84905-116-3

Although there is evidence that social workers gain considerable enjoyment and satisfaction from their work, they tend to report higher levels of stress, fatigue and burnout than many other occupational groups. This has serious implications for health and job performance, as well as recruitment and retention. The need for social workers to develop the emotional resilience required to cope with the numerous stressors inherent in their role has been widely emphasised. Nonetheless, although numerous books have been published on work-related stress and its management in general, very few focus specifically on the social work context. This book aims to help social workers overcome stress and enhance their wellbeing. It is targeted towards managers and supervisors, as well as front-line social workers. As an experienced social worker, van Heutgen has a deep understanding of the pressures faced by social workers in criminal justice, mental health and child protection settings. She also draws on interviews with 14 social work practitioners, supervisors and managers based in New Zealand that explored the most stressful features of social work and ways by which these may be ameliorated.

The book comprises nine chapters that are presented in two parts. Relevant, engaging and effective quotes from interviews are provided in each chapter in order to present the views and experiences of front-line social workers. Each chapter concludes with a 'stocktake' or 'tool-kit' section that encourages the reader to reflect on personal experience. Suggestions for further reading, including up-to-date journal articles and reports, are also provided. Part 1 introduces the reader to meanings and definitions of workplace stress. Van Heugten effectively contextualises the nature of stress in the sector by exploring the stressors inherent in the job, emphasising the complexity and increasing bureaucracy of the social worker's role. The wide-ranging impact of stress is examined, placing particular emphasis on compassion fatigue and the burnout syndrome. Ways by which work-related pressure may 'spill over' to affect the social worker in her or his personal life is also explored. A discussion of the emotional labour inherent in human service work and its potential impact is a particularly welcome addition.

Three prominent models of job stress are described, including Karasek's widely utilised Demand-Control-Support framework. Although the author argues that these models can help social workers gain insight into the sources of the pressure they face, and inform the development of interventions to enhance work-related wellbeing, how this may be accomplished is not adequately explored. Nonetheless, several strategies that have the potential to help social workers manage stress are examined, including workload management, education / training and supervision. Although employers clearly have a legal and moral responsibility to manage the structural sources of stress, several meta-analyses indicate that secondary stress management strategies such as cognitive-behavioural techniques and relaxation can be useful in reducing the arousal associated with the fight and flight response and enhancing wellbeing. It is surprising, therefore, that the author dismisses such techniques as lacking support for their effectiveness.

The chapters included in Part 2 of the book explore issues encountered in front-line practice, trauma work, and the impact of violence from clients or colleagues. One chapter focuses on working with victims of trauma, drawing on the recent New Zealand earthquake to contextualise the difficulties experienced by social workers in such circumstances. This chapter is particularly welcome as it emphasises the need for social workers to be aware of the impact that working with distress can have on them both personally and professionally. Some potentially useful techniques are described to help reduce the possibility of long-term negative impact on their own wellbeing. Chapter 7 focuses on workplace bullying and harassment and the impact this may have on social workers. This is useful and informative, but many of the points made are not specific to social work and could be equally applied to other workplace contexts including community and criminal justice. There is an increasing tendency for organisations to adopt, often unwittingly, cultures of blame rather than providing a 'safe' environment whereby workers learn from their mistakes and 'near misses'. Van Heugten considers the implications of a 'blame' culture for the wellbeing of social workers emphasising the effect on wellbeing of worries about risks, mistakes and complaints.

The final chapter draws together some of the themes introduced in the book and makes some recommendations for enhancing wellbeing in the profession. However, the issues introduced in this chapter are somewhat fragmented and under-developed. This book makes a significant contribution to understanding the stressors and strains experienced by contemporary social workers and emphasises the importance of having appropriate organisational support. The author adopts an evidence-based approach, citing up-to-date evidence to support her argument. Nonetheless, in order to help the workforce overcome stress, fatigue and burnout, more detailed recommendations are required of the ways in which social workers can enhance their resilience to stress.

Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology, University of Bedfordshire and Louise Grant, Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Bedfordshire
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Author:Kinman, Gail; Grant, Louise
Publication:British Journal of Community Justice
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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