Wot no fear?
From July to December last year Community Care magazine ran the 'No Fear' campaign, addressing the problems of 'violence and stress in social work' which 'have reached unacceptable levels'. The campaign followed the murder of Jenny Morrison, a social worker in London who was killed by one of her mentally ill clients, and a Community Care survey which found that 54 percent of social workers who responded had been 'violently attacked' and 49 percent felt 'severely stressed' at work. Another study, by the National Institute of Social Work, found that 75 percent of staff had been 'verbally abused'.
As somebody who works in a mental health team, I was surprised by these figures. If half my colleagues have been violently attacked, they have certainly kept quiet about it. But Community Care's respondents were self-selected, so maybe only those who had reason to feel strongly about the issue bothered to reply. The reality is that the risk of being killed by a client is extremely rare - according to a government source, there were eight cases in the 1980s and 90s, even though social services employees are in contact with over two million clients every year.
So why the inflated sense of risk? Partly this is a result of the loose definition of violence. For the British Association of Social Workers violence can be 'serious assault' and 'murder' (fair enough), but it can also cover 'verbal abuse' and 'threatening behaviour'. Considering that social workers work with people who are mentally or physically incapacitated, in severe distress, and at the margins of society, the fact that 75 percent suffer verbal abuse at some point in their career is hardly surprising. Do they expect to be thanked by a parent whose child they have just removed, or by a patient whom they have just detained under the Mental Health Act?
But there are other reasons for this focus on fear. Employers are acutely aware of the threat of litigation by stressed-out employees - in January, a council worker was awarded £200 000 in an out-of-court settlement, the latest in a series of payouts for work-related stress. And gone are the days when unions argued for better pay and conditions. Today they emphasise how vulnerable we are and demand that we be protected. If the Community Care survey is anything to go by, such a pathetic sense of self is being embraced by social workers themselves.
Social workers often emphasise their isolation, feeling pilloried by libertarians for being draconian and castigated by the media for failing to protect children. But Community Care's campaign has united everybody from the government and senior management to the unions and those on the ground. Surely an easier solution to the stresses of community care would be to get a life - or another job.
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000