Organising for health and safety – a crucial part of union action
Workers and unions around the world mark International Workers’ Memorial Day each year on April 28th to mourn the dead and fight for the living. This is an important date for the trade union movement as we continue fighting for improved working conditions and workers’ wellbeing.
The theme in 2023 is “Organising for health and safety”. We said it last year in our interview with former GFTU General Secretary Doug Nicholls and we’ll say it again – the Social Workers Union (SWU) is a proud member of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) which has always specialised in health and safety. Our union supports, advises, and represents social workers who struggle with a range of health and safety issues from chronic work-induced stress to encountering aggression and even violence.
SWU General Secretary John McGowan said, “Social work is a key service provided to society and we can’t dismiss that. An investment in social work is past due in order to meet the ongoing challenges caused and exacerbated by both the pandemic and over a decade of austerity. Social workers deserve a safe and healthy workplace and SWU will continue to campaign for this on behalf of our members, and to fight for better resources for people who use social services.”
Balanced media reporting of social work
SWU has produced guidelines for media reporting of social workers in consultation with the Independent Monitor for the Press (IMPRESS) and with the support of other organisations including the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the chief social workers of England.
Unbalanced media reporting on the social work profession can put social workers and the people they work with at risk. It can also undermine trust in the profession and deter people from seeking support when they need it.
In one case, the names of social workers were revealed by the media and one social worker required police protection after being tracked down by local Facebook groups that found out where he lived and made repeated death threats to him and his pregnant wife. In another case, a social worker was harassed whenever she came into work by a group with a megaphone and was followed home after leaving the office. Both individuals have now left the social work sector – a sector which cannot afford to lose workers as it is experiencing a staffing crisis with the highest number of vacancies in 5 years.
Building on the guidelines for media reporting, this month SWU has launched a new rapid reporting mechanism for social workers concerned about media coverage. If social workers spot media coverage which misrepresents the profession or reveals personal details of social workers, which may be in breach of the guidelines SWU has published, they can now report them directly to SWU and we will take action.
SWU will continue to work with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), IMPRESS, the National Union of Journalists, and other bodies to address issues in the coverage of social workers in the media.
Improving social workers’ wellbeing and working conditions
Pressure is to be expected in any workplace and can be a positive, motivating force. However, when pressure becomes excessive it transforms into a harmful force called stress. A 2022 survey conducted by SWU and LBC Radio with almost 1000 respondents starkly revealed the high levels of stress that social workers are experiencing – 82% suffer from stress at work, 65% said that their mental health is suffering because of their job, and 24% admitted to finding themselves suffering an emotional response to their work (crying / feeling unwell) at least once a week.
Stress can have a significant impact negative on our physical and psychological health and, over the years, case law precedent has developed to accept that stress can be a health and safety issue. Dr Neil Thompson discusses employers’ responsibilities, the impact of burnout, and common myths about stress in the new Talk to SWU interview for Stress Awareness Month 2023.
Joint research by BASW, SWU, and Bath Spa University shows that social workers will deal with about 10 stressful work situations a day with an average of 50 interactions a week, and on average social workers put in 11 extra hours of work per week. The Social Worker Wellbeing and Working Conditions Good Practice Toolkit was produced from this research to help practitioners, employers, and leaders achieve better working conditions. It is free to download and includes a practical guide and a supported self-assessment and planning tool/approach.
SWU has also recorded a “Stepping stones towards decent working conditions” webinar to highlight the challenges social workers face in the workplace, explore what employers can do to support workers, and how we can take small steps to secure the changes we need to see. It covers key topics such as part-time work, tackling racial discrimination, neurodivergence, tackling burnout, menopause support, and how being part of a trade union can make a huge difference to our working conditions.