Social workers subject to intense work pace and stress levels

Recent studies reveal that work-related illnesses affect social workers in municipalities twice as much as workers in other occupations. Work-related diseases due to psychosocial risks and organisational factors workers account for 71% of the total reported cases of illness among this group of workers. In an attempt to reduce the incidence of work-related diseases, the Work Environment Authority carried out workplace inspections resulting in demands to improve the work environment.

Work-related disorders among social workers

In recent years, several studies on the work environment have been carried out by the Work Environment Authority (Arbetsmiljöverket, WEA) based on interviews and reported cases of work-related diseases: Work-related disorders 2006 (in Swedish), Occupational accidents and work-related diseases 2004 (in Swedish, 2.4Mb PDF), The work environment 2003 (in Swedish). The studies reveal that social workers report twice as many work-related disorders than average, such as physical or psychological problems caused by carrying out tasks that reduce the ability to work at the workplace or in the household. This finding may be partly due to higher-than-average exposure to psychosocial risk factors among this occupational group, such as violence, threats or heavy workload. According to the studies, not only do work-related disorders affect twice as many social workers compared with other occupational groups, social workers are also over-represented by about 39% in the category of workers most affected by mental strain.

The prevailing work situation for social workers is characterised by a high pace of work, a heavy workload, threats of violence leading to psychological strain, a high staff turnover rate and subsequent organisational restructuring of the municipal social administrations (see Table). In general, the studies reveal that 71% of the total reported work-related diseases among social workers are strongly associated with exposure to psychosocial risks and organisational factors. Furthermore, the high level of interaction between workers and their clients, as well as other people outside the workplace, may lead to conflict between the worker and the client as well as workers over-engagement with clients resulting in stressful situations; this high level of interaction accounts for 18% of the total reported factors causing work-related diseases, according to the 2004 report on occupational accidents and diseases.

Factors causing work-related diseases, 2005 (%)
Social and organisational factors causing work-related diseases among social workers (%)
Work pace or stress Threats, violenceand trauma Work organisation Problematic relations with colleagues High level of contact with clients Responsibility or high-level demands Other Total
36 13 15 7 18 8 3 100

Source: WEA, 2005

Findings arising from the inspections

Because of the alarming situation in terms of the psychosocial perspective of social workers’ work environment, the WEA recently decided to carry out workplace inspections in an effort to reduce the incidence of work-related diseases. The purpose of these inspections was to ensure that municipal employers are taking the necessary precautions to prevent work-related ill-health among social workers.

A total of 400 inspections were carried out in 139 workplaces or administrations, which resulted in 182 inspection notices for employers and an overall 1,384 demands for improvements to the work environment.

More than half, at 718 of the total 1,384 demands, involved taking measures against threats to workers and the risk of violence, whereas 279 demands were related to work environmental risks, which could be associated with work-related health disorders.

Threats and violence

The workplace inspections found that a large proportion of demands for improvements are related to threats and violence in the workplace, thus highlighting that the threat of violence is a risk factor contributing to work-related disorders among social workers. Furthermore, the inspections recorded several cases where procedures were lacking on how to act when threats or violence occur. In some cases, where procedures existed, the staff members were not aware of them or they were not followed.

Additional safety issues were associated with making house calls. Home visits without at least two social workers present are regarded as a risk situation; however, no recommendations were made on defining a suitable number of people to attend to house calls.

Another matter of concern for the safety of social workers is the lack of procedures and information about different security arrangements.

Work organisation

The majority of work environment problems were related to organisational factors, such as deficiencies in accountability, unclear role distribution, high staff turnover or a lack of administrative support, resulting in a heavy workload and stressful situations for workers.

Several of the organisations inspected had a high staff turnover, which increased the workload for the remaining employees. The increased workload was partially a result of insufficient resources and new employees not being properly trained. Other issues concerned a lack of clarity in relation to accountability. For example, when the workload was too heavy in some organisations, it was unclear to whom the social workers should turn for assistance; in such cases, support from superiors was also often lacking. Moreover, the inspections revealed that the employees had difficulties prioritising tasks in times of an intense workload. These organisational defects, resulting in a heavy workload, contributed to psychosomatic disorders due to stress. In addition, such organisational problems resulted in a high incidence of sickness among employees, who were conscious of passing additional burdens onto colleagues by being absent from work.

References and further information

WEA, Socialsekreterare (in Swedish), Short figures and facts relating to social workers, No. 8, 2005.

WEA, Tillsyn av Socialsekreterarnas arbetsmiljö 2005–2006 (in Swedish) [Supervision of the social welfare secretary work environment 2005–2006], 2007.

Paul Andersson and Jenny Lundberg, Oxford Research

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