Role conflict linked to social work burnout, academics warn

A literature review carried out on behalf of the Professional Standards Authority has flagged up concerns about the pace of change in the sector

Social workers experiencing role conflict are more likely to suffer stress and burnout, a group of academics has warned the Professional Standards Authority (PSA).

The regulatory body commissioned academics at King’s College London to undertake a literature review in order to understand the roles and issues within the social work profession.

Value conflict

Lead author of the review, which brought together over 300 studies, Jo Moriarty said: “Social workers have a very strong sense of their values. If they have to do things that conflict with those values, it seems to have a very bad effect.”

Changing statutory burdens mean social workers may have to work in a way that comes into conflict with their core values, for example filling in forms at the expense of spending time with service users, Moriarty said.

As expectations shift, social workers are also expected to take on new and unfamiliar tasks, such as carrying out best interest assessments, which makes it more difficult to form a clear professional identity, she added.

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Professional identity

Moriarty said struggles to maintain a clear professional identity were also strongly linked to stress and burnout in the literature.

“Social workers worry that if they are experiencing stress and burnout, it will have an impact on their judgement,” she said.

However, Moriarty added the literature review was a positive experience: “The PSA was really responsive about wanting to understand some of the stresses social workers face,” she said.

Links to burnout

“They were interested in some of the reasons people might make a mistake. The worry is what happens with the relationship between stress and performance when it gets to the point that somebody might come before a regulator.”

Another key issue emerging from the review was the pace of change in the social work profession over the last five years and concerns that reforms have not been given time to bed down properly.

Moriarty said the pace makes it even harder to have clear sense of professional identity because “the roles are often imposed from above”.

The PSA took on responsibility for ensuring the consistency of social work regulation, both across the profession and in line with other professions, when the regulation transferred to the Health and Care Professions Council.

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