Posted Wednesday, July 22, 2015 by Rich Bowlen

Why Do Social Workers Burn Out?

Years ago I supervised an amazing child protective services social worker who, despite the tough nature of the job and mounds of case files on her desk, was dedicated to helping her families.(Because this is a true story, I’ll call her by a pseudonym – Anne.)

Anne was buried in paperwork and visibly stressed out trying to keep up with everything, but she came to work day after day because she genuinely wanted to help her families. However, I could see that the strain was starting to wear on her.

One day when Anne and her two children were at home they heard a crash outside, which turned out to be a brick smashing through her car window. They looked outside and saw Anne’s car engulfed in flames. A family who Anne was working to help had firebombed her car. Later after the fire was out, Anne saw her children’s melted car seats in the backseat. That was Anne’s breaking point and she left social work.

What happened to Anne still impacts me, but it also helped me understand that Anne didn’t leave because of the car. Burnout is not just one event. It’s a steady drumbeat of stress and emotional turmoil and finally withdrawal. I firmly believe Anne could have overcome that one traumatic experience and continued doing social work, had she not already been on the edge.

I recently read an article, Preventing Burnout, on, that confirms my own belief about social worker burnout. It cautions, “You may be on the road to burnout if:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re exhausted all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.”

Because I believe that the burden of paperwork contributed to Anne’s burnout, the burnout sign “the majority of your day is spend on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming” intrigues me. Since social workers get into social work to help people, but spend anywhere from 70 to 80% of their time documenting their work, that warning sign sure seems to fit.

The obvious problem with burnout is that it leads to turnover, which jeopardizes the continuity of care for families and increases the stress on remaining social workers who have to pick up the caseloads.

I find myself asking a lot of questions: How much does paperwork contribute to burnout? Or does the nature of the job simply wear on social workers and they leave? How do pay and benefits impact turnover?

To better understand why social workers leave their agency or the profession altogether, we at Northwoods asked frontline social workers, supervisors, and managers to take a survey on social worker burnout and turnover.

What we found is pretty interesting. Nearly half of social workers say the stress of the job leads to burnout, but almost as many point to other contributing factors to burnout: unending paperwork, manual processes, and a lack of proper tools to do their jobs.

Check out the survey results in this infographic, Breaking the Burnout Cycle.

While human services agencies don’t have the power to change the nature of the job, they do have the power to provide better tools and automate processes. Northwoods has tools and ideas for process improvement (learn about our solution for mobile social workers to see how) that we think will help with our overarching goal and my personal mission: preventing another burnout like Anne’s.