Burnout in the workplace: a case of too much too soon for young social workers?

On Monday, Gillian* will come to the end of her second period of extended sick leave, walk back into work and submit her resignation. A newly qualified social worker who graduated with first-class honours, she has been employed for just over a year in a local authority in northern England and she is burned out. She is frightened – of giving up her job, of the financial hole that will leave her in, and of being seen as “tainted” by potential employers because she has taken time off sick. But she is even more terrified of making a mistake that leads to a child dying.

Gillian says she was given a workload that no newly qualified social worker should have to cope with. “In my first week I was handed nine cases consisting of 14 children. Four were on the child protection register and two were in court proceedings for placement orders. I had to deal with an adoption 250 miles away, runaways, parenting assessments, case conferences, looked-after children reviews and PEP meetings. I felt overwhelmed, not least when asked to write an urgent adoption report on a child I’d never met.”

When she asked for guidance on this last point, her team leader said she couldn’t help as she yet to write one under new adoption legislation. Gillian was advised to find someone who had, or to read the manual. After asking around, she says it became evident that the manual was her only option.

This was just the first in a series of crises where Gillian, who comes across as a scrupulously conscientious professional, worked late into the night to understand legislation and complex administration systems in order to do the best she could for her clients under extraordinary pressure from above.

She has been required to drive for up to nine hours in a day to attend cases outside her area, has had to deal with large numbers of files that were significantly incomplete due to previous incumbents’ sick leave and eventual departure, and was finally asked to do a sexual risk assessment without the correct training.

This was the final straw. Appalled, Gillian protested that she should not be doing this work. Her manager simply told her to get on with it. This, she says, was typical of the lack of support from above that contributed to unendurable pressure that resulted in her going off sick.

Gillian is not alone. Another recent graduate, Ella,* says she had a single supervision in four months on her final placement. Left unsupervised to deal with child protection cases she was not, at that point, qualified to manage, she says she wasn’t sleeping or eating because of constant anxiety about making a mistake that would damage a child in her care. Fraught to the point of feeling “unhinged”, she broke out in eczema, lost all confidence in her practice and her faith in her employers. She now wants to leave the profession and, after three years of study, “go back to a secretarial job”.

James* worked in Birmingham as a newly qualified social worker, where he was immediately, and inappropriately, allocated child protection cases. He developed high blood pressure that led to nosebleeds and bleeding gums, and left after seven months, suffering from burnout.

“The culture was ‘bang out a case assessment’ but you just can’t do that,” he says with passion. “You’re not giving a proper service to the family. But I was being told I was taking too long, despite working within recommended guidelines. And I won’t do anything less than a thorough job.”

Search on Google for “social work + burnout” and the first website that pops up is called www.friedsocialworker.com. That URL, however, is the only laugh you’ll get – ploughing through many research studies into the stresses under which social workers frequently operate makes for a depressing and troubling read.

A report just out from the Chartered Management Institute and Simplyhealth states that only one in three workers in the social care sector consider that they are operating at anything like peak performance. Many blame ill health for this drop in productivity.

Helplessness and frustration

Clearly not all of this will be caused by burnout. But given that only 53% said they were confident of sympathetic treatment if they fell sick, it doesn’t augur well for anyone experiencing the extreme levels of hopelessness and frustration characterised by burnout. These are professionals in urgent need of understanding and support. In fact, it’s the very lack of that sympathetic approach – whether on a day-to-day level or through official supervisions that social workers say are frequently postponed or curtailed – that is repeatedly cited as a major contributing factor when social workers start to “burn out”.

Speaking on behalf of the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, Jo Cleary (pictured right), the London Borough of Lambeth’s director for adults’ and community services, insists that social work supervisory practice is a model for other sectors. But when challenged on whether these regular supervision sessions she praises really do happen at the coalface in the organised, regular and caring way she describes, she says: “My responsibility is about that quality [of supervision]. But I’m not present in those supervision sessions. What I can do is ensure they take place, and talk to line managers.”

When asked whether social workers are typically overstretched in terms of their workload, she asks back: “Is it worse than it used to be? I don’t know.” But she admits that demand “is growing and inevitably that will have an impact”.

Earlier, she noted that “the GSCC code of conduct for registered social workers places responsibilities on employees as well as employers”.

All very well, but if a social worker takes that responsibility, makes a protest and is then forced to do the work anyway, it’s hard to see what any professional, particularly one at the start of their career, can do to improve either their own situation or the outcomes for their clients.

Cleary also says that burnout is not a new issue for the sector, given the emotional demands of the job. But it is unclear from our interview that the scale of the problem is understood by those at the top of the profession: when it is suggested that many social workers are affected by burnout, Cleary insists she doesn’t know for a fact that this is the case.

Figures, clearly, are difficult to find, and it may be time that some research is done into numbers affected and how many leave the profession as a result.

Sick leave stigma

Ruth Cartwright (pictured), professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, says the stigma attached to taking sick leave, however, is considerable, and this can exacerbate the problem.

She herself left a management position because of burnout. So did half her 14-strong team. The stress she felt through lack of support from her managers contributed to a deterioration in her working conditions so that eventually she felt unwilling and unable to bear.

Worryingly, Cartwright confirms that understaffing, leading to inexperienced ­people having to work on complicated cases, is “fairly prevalent”. There is also, she says, “a lot of bullying in higher and middle management in social work,” that makes already stressful situations much worse. “They have their own pressures, but they will pass their pressure down the line. Burnout is a very heavy price to pay for a relatively small salary and not much public support.”

No social worker expects their job to be anything but emotionally taxing and occasionally draining. It’s the inappropriate ­allocation of cases, unmanageable workload, lack of supervision and unsympathetic line management that is leaving some feeling so desperate, exhausted and fearful of making mistakes that they’re burning out. Forced into taking sick leave by an untenable working environment, some, like Gillian, finally decide to leave their jobs or even abandon their profession altogether. When first-class graduates are failing to cope, those at the top of this profession should perhaps be asking themselves a few hard questions.

* Names have been changed


Burnout can involve feelings of:

● Frustration, helplessness and powerlessness in your working environment.
● Having had the emotional energy sucked out of you.
● Isolation and detachment from a situation, followed by withdrawal.
● Being fenced in and unable to escape.
● Demoralisation.
● Failure.
● Irritation.
● Cynicism about your job and any possibility of success.
● Overwhelming tiredness.
● Wanting to indulge in escapist behaviours as a way of freeing yourself from your work situation.

This article appeared in the 15 November issue under the headline “The heat is on”

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