The emotional demands of public-sector work exceed those of employment in the private sector. The leading causes of job stress still apply. Job insecurity, heavy workloads, and changes to the organization all take their toll. With an average of 9.1 sick days annually compared to 5.7 for private employees, it is clear that the nature of public sector work is a major cause of job stress.
The Institute of Education Sciences and lead researchers at Harvard Business School don’t see this emotional stress as an inevitable fact of social work. Those who deal with people in distress on a daily basis are certainly at a higher risk of burnout and a number of emotional disorders, but it turns out their managers can effectively reduce this risk.
The following three ideas for manager implementation are backed up by research and specific to the many categories of social work. Employee monitoring is often viewed as a hands-off process involving evaluations and a disciplinary check list, but research suggests it should be the backbone of prevention. The support of established peers is viewed as an organic process, but this is another area where management guidance makes a huge difference. The culture in many workplaces inhibits displays of emotion as a sign of weakness. Changing this culture to one that accepts the emotional demands of the job is a critical factor.
Once an employee is suffering enough from job stress to take sick days, the damage has been done. Managers need to begin by recognizing the demands of the job and likelihood that new workers do not have the necessary skills of personal resilience. The general rule is less experienced workers need more support from their managers.
What does this support look like? It combines an open-door policy with routine debriefing sessions. The manager or other designated party becomes the employee’s mentor. Debriefing sessions are an opportunity to discuss emotional encounters on the job. The mentor should be a great listener and have the experience to suggest healthy methods of processing the day’s baggage.
Senior workers can certainly serve as mentors, but a different type of peer support offers proven benefits of its own. Peer support is usually not actively encouraged. After all, friendships and sharing are supposed to be organic processes undertaken at the will of individuals. Managers shouldn’t order workers to a conference room in the hopes they will support each other, but the benefits are worth considering a few tactics.
Set aside a time and place at least once per week for employees. Avoid making it free, unstructured time. Employees can rotate moderator privileges, or the manager can bring in a volunteer moderator from a nearby college of social work or psychology. The goal is to get workers talking to one another candidly about their ordeals and responses without orders from management.
Culture of Care
Researchers found a glaring problem in many workplaces that strongly contributes to job stress. Many public organizations have a culture that views signs of stress as weakness. Research shows open communication is the best way to reduce stress, and workers forced to hide stress or suffer the consequences are on the fast track to burnout.
A culture that acknowledges emotional demands and recognizes the solution of communication begins with senior management. Social workers aren’t the only ones facing stress. their immediate managers have a fair share as well. Some people are resilient enough to show a caring and open attitude regardless of the situation. Many others need to know compassion in the workplace before they are ready to share it.
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Dana Leighton is a social worker and guest author at Best Social Work Programs, where she contributed to the Best Top 10 Online Bachelor’s in Social Work Programs guide.