By Dr Paula McFadden
Social workers know the rewards and challenges of their unique profession.
We know that the good days can far outweigh the difficult ones and that we can feel job satisfaction and exhausted, all at once. We get ‘high highs’ and ‘low lows’ and we must keep going when times are beyond tough. But is this possible without a personal cost?
I have researched burnout and resilience in social work for several years. Initially, I focused on child protection as this tends to get media and political attention. There is much research about staff wellbeing, turnover, retention and low experience in teams. These concerns are shared by researchers and practitioners alike, particularly social workers whose daily lives are immersed in the challenges of risk management, assessment and interventions to protect the most vulnerable in our society, whilst trying to maintain their own health and wellbeing.
Child protection is not alone
In 2015, I worked on a UK-wide burnout study for Community Care using the Maslach Burnout Inventory) to examine emotional exhaustion (when we numb out of our own feelings due to feeling emotionally exhausted), de-personalisation (when we have a reduced capacity for empathy) and personal accomplishment feelings. The overwhelming findings from that study were that high emotional exhaustion and a reduced capacity for empathy existed in most participants, but alongside this personal accomplishment was still experienced
So how can this be? I looked to other studies and found evidence that this occurred in other parts of the world, with job satisfaction and emotional exhaustion co-existing among US child welfare workers. This implies that the cost of ‘keeping going’ can be ‘self-sacrificial’ with potential impacts on health and wellbeing.
The 2015 study also showed that, despite concerns for child protection social workers, adult social workers experienced a lot of emotional exhaustion. Some argue that much of this is about practice in the adult world, having to ‘learn as we go’ because the demographics relating to older people and those with long term conditions are a ‘new territory’ for many social workers. A focus on money and targets, can push staff to work more on computers and planning, than face to face work with service users and carers. Open office spaces often add to the noise and environmental challenges for staff who might have to ‘hot desk’ or move around to find a quiet space or privacy to make a sensitive call.
Ageing is not restricted to service users
Social workers too are ageing. The retirement bubble may be about to burst before we know it. The amount of people approaching their 50s or already into their 60s is notable in social work. Perhaps we do not have a population large enough to replace those due to leave the profession, and this might place more pressure on remaining staff. We do know social work sometimes needs a ‘resilience’ injection through organisational supports, workload analysis, relationship supports, supervision and targeting interventions. Over time, can these supports be enhanced to enable people to work if they want to and in ways that are healthy?
Social workers: we want your views
There is still time to help us understand your wellbeing concerns and how they will shape your intention to stay or leave the social work profession.
As part of new research by Ulster University, with support from Community Care, we want your views on ageing at work and what you think needs to put in place to support the longevity of the workforce.
We need insights into the quality of working life to present our case as social workers to employers and policy makers. Whether we are at risk of burnout or are resilient depends on our experiences and the supports in place to reduce the risk of negative consequences related to work as we age. Please tell us your story using this survey and help us present the case for social work.
Paula McFadden is senior lecturer in social work at Ulster University