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.
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.
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.
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.