Posted Tuesday, March 8, 2022 by Team Northwoods

Why Do Social Workers Burn Out?

Social worker burnout and turnover have always been a significant problem in human and social services. Turnover in child welfare has ranged from 20-40% annually for the last two decades. But today the stakes are higher than ever. Frontline workers are mentally, emotionally, and physically drained.

Demanding work. High stress. Low pay. Administrative burden. Secondary trauma. These factors have affected social workers for a long time now. (A scary example: in 2018, over half of Ohio’s child welfare workforce was experiencing levels of secondary traumatic stress that meet the threshold for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.)

On top of all that, social workers have been quietly shouldering the burden of the pandemic for nearly two years now. There’s been no reprieve and minimal recognition—they’ve just kept working at the same pace, but under even more challenging circumstances.

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Critical Factors Contributing to Social Worker Burnout

Influxes of need and turnover are coming to a head, creating a perfect storm that could crumble an already taxed system if not addressed quickly. And turnover must be addressed quickly, since the negative impacts of high turnover on agency morale, productivity, and outcomes for children and families have long been established.

Increasing client need in the community.

The ripple effects of COVID-19 will impact all human and social services programs for years to come. For example, on top of their usual workload, social workers at child welfare agencies across the country have been reaching out to families previously involved in the system to provide assistance through diapers, formula, and other necessities to prevent children from entering foster care.

These same workers are now also stepping up to find supports and services for thousands of kids being affected by the youth mental health crisis, along with an increasing number of youth previously involved in other systems of care who are now being referred to child welfare instead.

Critical Factors Causing Social Worker Burnout

Of course, the need isn’t limited to child welfare. Eligibility waivers will expire any day now and economic assistance workers will have to get caught up on years’ worth of case reviews, on top of an already increased load of applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, and other benefits.

Clients’ needs are greater than ever, and they aren’t going to heal overnight. The need will just keep growing and getting more complex. This burden weighs heavily on social workers who are already overwhelmed.

Ongoing turnover across all levels of the agency.

Not only are agencies struggling to retain quality workers, but now are also seeing longer delays in filling open positions. When positions do get filled, the workload waiting for them can be immediately overwhelming—which can in turn contribute to that new worker exiting quickly. For example, each additional family case assigned to a worker in the first week of practice increases their odds of departure by 10%.

Social workers' challenges are exacerbated because this turnover isn’t just happening on the frontlines. Supervisors, program administrators, and directors are leaving too, which feeds the cycle.

Think about it this way: every time a social worker leaves, supervisors have to pick up their workload or redistribute it to another person who’s already overworked. Neither option is ideal, which adds to their already high stress. Similarly, when a supervisor leaves, social workers lose a key job resource, coach, and mentor, which decreases their job satisfaction and increases the likelihood they leave.

Simply put, the helpers are tired. But that’s only part of the story. A turbulent labor market spurred by the “Great Resignation” is also a contributing factor. With so much shake-up across all industries, agencies are now competing with local retailers, fast-food chains, and other lower stress job alternatives to attract talent. It’s also nearly impossible to compete with the private sector’s ability to be flexible and increase wages.

Another part of the issue is that workers aren’t just leaving their agency jobs—they’re leaving the field entirely. The pool of experienced applicants just keeps shrinking. This cycle is costly to everyone, including the agency, the workers who stay, and, most importantly, the families they’re trying to serve.

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Supporting Social Workers Who Stay

We recently wrote about how retaining workers in the current job market requires human and social services agencies to embrace flexible, hybrid work models. That post offers strategies to make your social workers feel more supported, no matter where work gets done (think coaching, scheduling check-in times, or investing in workers’ well-being).

Technology that’s purpose-built for human services also plays a key role in reducing stress and burnout in social workers. It can help workers and supervisors stay connected, share work, access case information and forms, and keep confidential information secure, whether they are accessing files in the office, at home, or in their car in a fast-food restaurant’s parking lot. Here are a few specific examples:

  • Making time for mission-critical work. Social workers are driven by a desire to make a difference and take care of those who need it most. Technology removes unnecessary work and administrative obstacles that stand in the way of doing so. (For example, our software Traverse helps social workers repurpose two hours per day to spend more time doing the work they love and less time documenting it. Our Case Aide Services also help workers focus on families without sacrificing administrative work.) Empowering social workers to fully focus on assisting clients in being healthy, safe, and successful goes a long way in helping them feel fulfilled.
  • Building trust with families. Technology allows workers to efficiently collect and make use of documents, forms, photos, and other content without disrupting their interactions or causing discomfort for families. It gives them more time to focus on identifying safety risks or resources, which helps families get services faster and reach their goals in a timely manner.
  • Enhancing supervision. Supervisors have to know everything about everyone on every case assigned to their workers. Technology allows supervisors to quickly surface key information within each case to get an overview of a family’s story. They can spend more time providing counseling and support or validating workers’ decisions instead of always having to get caught up and relearn important case details. This is not only helpful to workers, but also may also help reduce supervisor burnout by helping them feel more effective at their role as mentor.
  • Onboarding new social workers. New social workers must be able to quickly acclimate to new cases that in most situations they’ve inherited from previous workers. Technology helps make the knowledge transfer more efficient by allowing new workers to easily sift through files and quickly familiarize themselves with the key details of each case, including what happened before they got involved. Everything previous workers knew, they know now too. They can pick up the conversation with a family where the previous worker left off, which reduces their burden of constantly feeling two steps behind. Technology with embedded support features (think in-app help or live chat) is especially helpful here so that new workers don’t have to waste time learning how to use the tool before they can start to tackle their casework.

Burnout always has, and likely always will be, a challenge in human services. You may not be able to control all the contributing factors, but you can certainly offer tools and strategies to help lessen the burden and empower social workers to do the job they signed up to do. Visit our page, "A Deep Dive Into Social Work Burnout (And What Your Human Services Agency Can Do About It)" to keep learning.

Director of Market Advocacy Laura Haffield contributed to this post.

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