Burn Rates among Social Workers

Introducing Burnout Prevention & Self-Care, a new ISCSW Newsletter column beginning in the 2017-3 issue.
In this issue, we feature a paper that was reprinted with the permission of the author, Austin Kimes MSW. It was originally published in California State University San Bernadino Scholarworks in 2016.

Here is a preview of that article:

by Austin Taylor Kimes
June 2016

Research suggests that social workers experience burnout at elevated rates; however, no study has developed an average rate of burnout among general social workers and quantitative research on the topic is lacking in general. This study conducted a systematic review and synthesis of the existing literature on burnout among social workers in order to (1) identify average burnout rates among social workers; and to (2) confirm previous findings showing differences between social worker groups by area of employment. A quantitative secondary data methodology was used that included self-report data from the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) that contained both cross-sectional and longitudinal data. The sample was obtained by parsing data from 17 of 379 studies that met inclusion criteria. Included studies utilized both random and non-random sampling strategies to provide data on 4391 participants.

Burnout, defined with its most agreed upon definition, given in 1982 by Christina Maslach, is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job. Individuals suffering from burnout experience emotional exhaustion, depersonalization of clients, and reduced feelings of personal accomplishment (Maslach, 2005). Emotional exhaustion, “the central quality of burnout” (Maslach et al., 2001, p. 402) refers to the feeling that one’s emotional resources have been drained and there is nothing left to give on a psychological level. Depersonalization refers to the development of negative or apathetic attitudes toward clients that can lead to providers viewing their clientele as deserving of their problems (1980; Maslach, 2005). The final construct of burnout involves under evaluations or negative evaluations about one’s personal accomplishments, performance, and impact on clients’ lives (Maslach, 2005). More recently, burnout has been modified to be described as being on a spectrum with engagement. Engagement is the opposite of burnout and is characterized by emotional energy, involvement with clients, and feelings of efficacy (Maslach & Leiter, 1997).
Like many terms in the study of humanities, the definition of burnout is not completely agreed upon, but Maslach’s definition has become ubiquitous within the literature on the topic and is a clear favorite with 93 percent of journals and studies using her definitions since the end of the 1990s(Hombrados-Mendieta, & Cosano-Rivas, 2011). Burnout often manifests in the form of mild psychosomatic illness, such as insomnia; emotional problems,such as increased anxiety; attitude problems, such as hostility or apathy, especially towards clients; and behavioral problems, such as aggressive behavior (Adriaenssens et al., 2012; Fuente et al., 2015; Jansson-Frojmark &Lindblom, 2011). While no definitive data regarding the prevalence of burnout among social workers exists, a problem in itself, burnout has been found to effect social workers and workers in the healthcare industry more frequently than the general population (Hombrados-Mendieta, & Cosano-Rivas, 2011; Lloyd, King, & Chenoweth, 2002; Travis, Lizano, & Mor Barak, 2015).

Macro Implications
On a macro level, burnout is a problem with broad implications. Both private and public organizations that employ social workers should beinterested in reducing employee stress and burnout, both for ethical and practical reasons. Ethically, organizations are obligated to protect employees from harm that results from the completion of duties. Practically, the disorders link to turnover, absenteeism, and poor job performance represent an opportunity cost (Maslach, 2005; Taris, 2006). Organizations provide benefits to many social workers. Burnout has been shown to be a risk factor in a variety of health problems that require treatment, additionally, burnout increases the amount of sick days’ employees take (Maslach et al., 1996; Maslach & Goldberg, 1998). Money is also wasted on training costs associated with higher turnover. Reducing turnover will prevent social workers from changing jobs or going into a different field and will prevent disruptions in productivity from understaffed departments. Finally, money can be saved as a result of the increased productivity that reduced burnout brings (Maslach, & Jackson, 1985).

Micro Implications
On a micro level, burnout impacts clients. Burnout impacts the level of care social workers can provide and impacts the client-provider relationship, particularly in the areas of empathy and building rapport (Fuente et al., 2001; Lizano & Mor Barak, 2013). Not only are less stressed and burned out social workers able to provide better care, they are also more productive and better able to emotionally connect with clients (Maslach et al., 1996; Maslach & Goldberg, 1998). Therefore, agencies that employ happy, satisfied social workers will have lower wait times than agencies that do not. Additionally, social workers themselves have a vested interest in reducing their levels of stress and burnout because it will improve their quality of life, reduce stress, and reduce their risk for a variety of illnesses (Maslach et al., 1996; Maslach & Goldberg, 1998).