‘Surviving at Work: Getting the Balance Right’ by Dr Neil Thompson

Life is never without its challenge, but there is always the opportunity to learn and grow from the demands made on us. Dr Neil Thompson offers advice to tackle these problems and help social workers and care professionals to realise their potential.

16/11/21

‘Surviving at Work: Getting the Balance Right’ by Dr Neil Thompson

Stress and the organisational factors that give rise to it is something I have been interested in literally for decades. I have consistently challenged the common idea that stress is the sign of a weak individual by emphasising that the reality is much more complex than this. I have also repeatedly argued that, when it comes to stress and workplace problems in general, focusing on the individual is likely to make the situation worse by creating a vicious circle: the more unsupported and blamed people feel, the more stressed they get.

What is needed, then, is a much more holistic understanding of stress, one that asks not what is wrong with this individual, but what is wrong in this situation (with ‘situation’ incorporating organisational and social factors and not just personal ones).However, some people go to the opposite extreme by oversimplifying a complex picture and thinking that it is only organisational and social factors that count, as if the individual is just a helpless, passive victim of circumstance. What we need to recognise is that stress arises from complex dynamics involving personal, organisational and social factors.

In our book, How to Survive in Social Work, John McGowan and I talk about the importance of understanding micro and macro factors and the interactions between them. What this means in practice is that it is a mistake to focus purely on micro factors (What can the individual do to manage high levels of pressure and keep stress at bay?) or purely on macro factors (What is the organisation doing to ensure reasonable workloads and to provide adequate support and leadership?).

Focusing purely on the micro serves to ‘blame the victim’ and, as we have seen, make a bad situations worse. Focusing purely on the macro distorts and oversimplifies a complex picture and serves to disempower the individual by disregarding positive steps they could potentially take to do the best they can in difficult circumstances – it also denies the opportunity for team members to pull together and support one another in taking proactive pressure management steps.

A blame culture, whether it involves blaming staff or blaming managers fails to do justice to the complexities involved and just adds further tensions to an already fraught situation. What is much better is a genuine culture of wellbeing where staff and managers work together to manage pressures as effectively as possible, support one another and campaign for better working conditions all round, where both micro and macro factors (and the way they influence each other) are taken into consideration.

Dr Neil Thompson is an independent writer, educator and adviser and a visiting professor at the Open University. His books include How to Survive in Social Work (with John McGowan) and The Managing Stress Practice Manual. He is also the Vice President of Vigoroom UK, a sophisticated employee wellness platform designed to help create happier and healthier workplaces: www.vigoroom.co.uk.

Neil will also be speaking about surviving in social work at the COMPASS Jobs Fair in London next Monday (22 November). Book your free place at the event at: https://www.compassjobsfair.com

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