What failures in care might really be saying about the social care workforce

Understanding how burnout can lead to poor care is key to preventing it, writes Mike Bush

burnt out
Photo: Image Broker/REX

By Mike Bush

The health of our nation depends upon many factors, but none more important than the care available to our most vulnerable citizens. The quality of this care, however, is highly dependent on the state of mind of our care-givers.

It is well known that caring in itself is a stressful business and the rates of sickness and absence, mental health problems and even suicide are elevated in these professions compared to the general population.

If care-giving professionals are stressed, fatigued, troubled, “burned out” or distracted, then they will not be in a position to attend fully to the needs of people in their care. There is a danger here of seeing any lapse in the quality of care as primarily an issue of the competence, training or even moral character of the social workers, instead of being about their energy levels, mental state and focus.


social worker meme

Photo: ‘Understanding and preventing burn out’/ Mike Bush

 Why are so many social workers burning out?

 Poor or uncompassionate management

When upper management cuts costs, middle management is often left powerless to support front line staff. This results in front line workers who are overburdened with unmanageable workloads, and middle managers who are squeezed between the directives to “do more with less” and “work smarter,” all in danger of burnout. 

Work/life balance

Many of us are employed in agencies which provide 24 hour services, such as hospitals, crisis centers, protective agencies, etc. It is to be expected that we all have to share the burden of working holidays, weekends, and late shifts. Some employers, however, repeatedly assign undesirable shifts to the same workers. Additionally, the distinction between being at work and time off from work becomes blurred when we are required to carry beepers and make ourselves available for consultation or crisis intervention on an on-call basis during our time away from the work setting.

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Protecting the frontline against burnout: Creating cultures to promote resilience and wellbeing for social care and health professionals– 10th March 2015
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Unrealistic expectations or targets

This coupled with intense work days, as far too many social work employers schedule exhausting shifts with no provision for meal breaks or short-term, essential mental and emotional refreshment, leads to increased stress.

Lack of resources to do the job

Money is the bottom line for most employers. Social workers in mental health, health care, and many public agencies function with constant fears and sometimes threats of staff reduction. An  atmosphere of ‘who’s next?’ does little to encourage professional autonomy, growth, or performance.

Office and inter-agency politics

We’d all rather just do our jobs and forget the power struggles that take up time needlessly. Many of our work days suffer from reduced productivity caused by the need to jump through internal or inter-agency hoops that are of little value for the care of our service users.

Poor or limited supervision and back-up

Frequently social workers are expected to perform effectively in hazardous situations, without adequate protective measures for health and safety or emotional support after difficult situations. Social workers frequently interact with service users without security staff or basic safety precautions, and often with little opportunity to de-brief afterwards.


Picture: Fran Orford

Picture: Fran Orford

Coping with stress
In an ideal world, all of this would be fixed, but what can you do in the meantime?

      • Don’t try to control the uncontrollable. Many things in life are beyond our control— particularly the behavior of other people. Rather than stressing out over them, focus on the things you can control such as the way you choose to react to problems.
      • Look for the upside. As the saying goes, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” When facing major challenges, try to look at them as opportunities for personal growth. If your own poor choices contributed to a stressful situation, reflect on them and learn from your mistakes.
      • Share your feelings. Talk to a trusted friend face to face or make an appointment with a therapist. The simple act of expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic.
      • Learn to forgive. Accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and that people make mistakes. Let go of anger and resentments by forgiving and moving on.
      • Make time for fun and relaxation

      If you regularly make time for fun and relaxation, you’ll be in a better place to handle life’s stressors

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One Response to What failures in care might really be saying about the social care workforce

  1. david Hambly February 10, 2015 at 1:24 pm #

    We are targets for Government cuts are paid badly and blamed as individuals for everything that goes wrong when we are working with complex cases, often with little day to day support, from front line managers. I do not blame the managers as already stated cuts are driving changes in organisations that make the job much more difficult. Staff feel underpaid, overworked, over stressed and often overwhelmed with how little they can achieve. Clients are mostly poor, old and or suffering basic deprivations. Austerity has made both them and us targets for the blame game.