Social workers across the UK are emotionally exhausted and battling to hang onto their compassion, but are still managing to achieve positive changes in the lives of service users, Community Care research has found.
However, the study, done in partnership with Queen’s University, Belfast, revealed ineffective supervision is increasing the risk of burnout.
In what is one of the largest studies of burnout among social workers in the UK, a total of 1,359 people completed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (a world leading scientific measure), of whom 1,161 were either frontline or senior social workers. The majority of respondents (70%) had more than six years’ experience.
Respondents worked across all areas of social work including child protection, older people, mental health and service users with disabilities. Almost all worked in statutory settings (94%).
The study found high levels of emotional exhaustion in the majority of respondents (73%) with one in four (26%) reporting high levels of depersonalisation, which describes the process of becoming emotionally hardened towards service users.
However, despite this there were overwhelming levels of high personal accomplishment among almost all respondents (91%) and nobody felt they were never able to positively influence service users.
Social workers at risk
Lead researcher Dr Paula McFadden, of the School of Social Work at Queen’s University, said the average score for both emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation was above the cut-off threshold to be considered at risk of burnout.
However, she said the high levels of personal accomplishment found were highly positive for the social work profession.
“It is clear from these findings that despite the negative feelings expressed about their jobs, the sense of personal accomplishment and efficacy remains high, preventing social workers from burnout.”
Caseload complexity needs more investigation
The study found high levels of emotional exhaustion reported across all sizes of caseloads, including those with less than 20 cases.
“This suggests that more research is needed to examine the complexity of cases social workers are holding,” McFadden said.
The results also showed a clear correlation between ineffective supervision and the risk of high levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation.
Ineffective supervision increases risk
Among those who reported their supervision was ineffective, the risk of high emotional exhaustion increased from more than 1:2 (60%) to more than 3:4 (86%) while the risk of high levels of depersonalisation increased from 1:4 (24%) to 1:3 (35%).
Despite a common perception that child protection is the most stressful area of social work, the study found those working with adults with physical disabilities had the highest levels of emotional exhaustion (84%) and depersonalisation (36%) closely followed by those working in mental health (80% and 31% respectively).
Most (83%) respondents were women but the study found factors such as gender, caring responsibilities, whether supervision was by a social worker or not and years’ experience had no, or very little, impact on the risks of burnout.
The headline results of the study are available in PDF format to download. They have been sent to government ministers, MPs, directors of social services, and other policy makers. Queen’s University, Belfast will take forward more in-depth analysis on the results.
Maslach Burnout Inventory
The Maslach Burnout Inventory is a method of measuring self-reported feelings across the three domains of burnout.
Emotional Exhaustion: This domain measures feelings of being emotionally over-extended by one’s work. Questions such as “I feel burned out by my work”, “I feel like I’m at the end of my rope” and “I feel emotionally drained from my work” measure this domain.
Depersonalisation: This describes a lack of feeling and an uncaring response to service users. Questions such as “I worry this job is hardening me emotionally”, “I feel I treat some recipients as impersonal objects” and “I have become more callous towards people since I took this job” measure this domain.
Personal Accomplishment: This domain measures feelings of competence and successful achievement in one’s work with people. It is measured by questions such as “I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job”, “I feel exhilarated after working closely with service recipients” and “I feel I am very positively influencing other people’s lives through my work”.
High levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation accompanied by low levels of personal accomplishment indicate burnout. However, high levels of personal accomplishment do not negate high scores in the other two domains. Those who have high scores in emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation are still considered at risk of burnout.
Maslach et al (1996:10)