‘Burnout’. It’s a term so common within social work these days that you can hardly go a day without hearing it.
First coined by Herbert J. Freudenberger in his 1974 paper ‘Staff Burn-Out’, it describes a feeling of exhaustion, a lack of motivation and enthusiasm, and increased mental duress within the workplace.
While any worker may be prone to burnout, it is known to be a particularly common issue amongst health and social care professionals due to the emotional demands of being responsible for the welfare of others and the high-stress nature of working in environments where you are potentially responsible for life or death decisions.
‘Sink or swim’
In my first day on the job as a qualified social worker I was chatting to a social work assistant. I thought I’d be honest by sharing the nerves I had about being a fully-fledged professional responsible for my own caseload. Without batting an eyelid, he told me that “it’s sink or swim around here, only the strong survive”.
What I took initially as a lighthearted comment, I later found out to be all too accurate. Within months, I was dealing with child protection cases by myself. I was working until 7pm every evening and holding a caseload of 30.
Whether it was luck, my nature or some innate emotional resilience, I ‘swam’ but many of my fellow newly qualified social workers weren’t as lucky. A third of those in my area ended up breaking down and having to leave the profession within months of qualifying.
This was despite us having a really good manager. Within the constraints the system imposed on her, she did everything in her powers to help us. It’s just that the structural restraints, high caseloads and problems recruiting experienced staff meant work was allocated to social workers who weren’t yet equipped to handle the responsibility.
As I’ve learned more about our profession and connected with many people from across the world I’ve learned that this issue runs like a seam through the heart of social work. It’s borne out in the statistics that 20% of children’s social work posts remain vacant and half of the workforce has less than five years’ experience.
Common stress factors
In the past few years I’ve been contacted by hundreds of social workers who have shared their stories of workplace stress with me. The common contributing factors are excessive workloads, long hours (often forced by unpaid overtime), constant change and uncertainty within the workplace, a lack of adequate support, poor supervision and a negative public image of the profession.
Brooding on this issue for lengthy periods at a time after reading each email or letter from my burnt out comrades, I find myself returning to the same question time after time – If burnout is such a commonly accepted outcome of the work we do and the conditions we do it in, then why isn’t it treated as an industrial injury?
The Oxford Dictionary defines an industrial injury as: an injury occurring in the course of one’s employment
Considering this in the context of workplaces that continually flaunt the safe recommended caseload of 20 and the knowledge that high caseloads are an issue in almost all below-par authorities, I am genuinely surprised that our unions have not yet brought a case forward on behalf of the many thousands of people who have been forced to leave their jobs because of burnout.
The case for such action seems even more compelling when considered alongside the news that the only councils to receive ‘outstanding’ grades for their children’s services did so on the back of low caseloads and a stable workforce.
With a weight of evidence from academics, BASW, our unions, Munro, Ofsted and the voices of those working on the frontline, all showing that high caseloads lead to burnout, it is surely a neglect of duty for employers to expect their workers to operate in such conditions and to foresee effective outcomes for service users arising in such an environment?
Eckhart Tolle tells us that “stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’” With that in mind, burnout isn’t caused because workers aren’t capable of doing the job expected of them. Instead, it’s because they can see how much better they could be if only their employer would help them get there.
Now is the time for employers to help us get to where we want to be, give us an environment we can thrive in and afford social workers with the tools they need to make a difference.