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The Burnout Problem


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Burned Out, Fried, Toast!


We Call it Many Things, and

 We Arrive There Many Ways.

Burned out, frustrated social worker






Social Work Burnout

Maslach & Leiter
define burnout as:

"the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit and will--an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral ..."


Symptoms include exhaustion, cynical detachment from our work, and feelings of ineffectiveness. 


Why are so many social workers are burning out? We're good people who are staunchly committed to helping others. Here's where we think the problem lies: 


Too many of our employers fail to empower us with the ability to perform effectively, doing so in a multitude of ways. 

  • Mismanagement  While social workers may be nice people, many social workSocial work boss! middle managers do not appear on the surface to be skilled administrators. However, looking at the problem more closely, when upper management mandates cost-cutting, middle management is often left powerless to support front line staff. This results in front line workers who are overburdened with unmanageable workloads. We suspect that social work middle managers, squeezed between the directives to "do more with less" and "work smarter,"  experience burnout just as intensely as front line workers. And we further suspect that we "front line workers" fail to recognize burnout in our supervisors as quickly as we recognize it in our same-level peers. But regardless of the reason for mismanagement ... lack of training, lack of experience, lack of insight, etc. ... when we find ourselves poorly treated by a social work supervisor, it seems to have an especially biting sting because it happens at the hands of "one of our own."

  • Schedule Imbalance  Many of us are employed in agencies which provide 24 hour services, such as hospitals, crisis centers, protective agencies, etc. It is to be expected that we all have to share the burden of working holidays, weekends, and off-shifts. Some employers, however, repeatedly assign undesirable shifts to the same workers. Additionally, the distinction between being at work and time off from work becomes blurred when we are required to carry beepers and/or make ourselves available for consultation or crisis intervention on an on-call basis during our time away from the work setting.

  • Intense Work Days  It is our observation that the most intensely burned out social workers are those with the most relentless work days. Far too many social work employers schedule exhausting shifts with no provision for meal breaks or short-term, essential mental/emotional refreshment. Burnout under these conditions appears quite pervasive to us. 

  • Chronic Fear of Downsizing  Money is the Targetbottom line for most of our employers. Social workers in mental health, health care, and many public agencies function with constant fears and sometimes threats of staff reduction. Who's next ... me? This type of atmosphere does little to encourage professional autonomy, growth, or performance. 

  • Lack of Professional Projects  We've discovered from personal experience that when we do nothing but patient care day after day, week after week, month after month, we begin to lose enthusiasm for our job and our profession. Feelings of professional isolation emerge, as well as the decreased ability to contribute meaningfully to the organization. Time and an opportunity to work on projects promoting better care of clients would lead to much more professional satisfaction! 

  • Office and Inter-Agency Politics  Who doesn't hate this one? We'd all  rather  Jumping thru hoops just do our jobs and forget the power struggles that take up time needlessly. Many of our work days suffer from reduced productivity caused by the need to jump through internal or inter-agency hoops that are of little value for the care of our clients. 


  • Lack of Appreciation This certainly occurs in all professions. But have you ever noticed how social workers are supposed to routinely deal with difficult and stressful situations without so much as a "please" or "thank you?"  Management sometimes compounds the our feelings of being unappreciated with last-minute schedule changes, denial of employee benefits, staff reductions, etc. 

  • Personal Risk  Frequently social workers are expected to perform effectively in hazardous situations without adequate protective measures for our health and safety. Dangerous situations are common for psych social workers and child protective workers. Medical and prison social workers often face patients with an airborne-communicable diseases such as TB without being informed of the risk and without adequate protective masks. Social workers frequently must interact with clients on a crisis basis without security staff or basic safety precautions.  In our opinion, nothing else more clearly communicates an employer's lack of appreciation and respect than to jeopardize social workers in this way during the course of our work day. 


Develop the positive habit of

Celebrating Social Work!





 More Resources

  • Looking for a good book about burnout? Please visit our Recommended Reading section.

  • Our Articles page will link you to more information about burnout. 

  • Find quizzes & tests for burnout, stress, and other hazards of the profession in our Self-Tests section.






According to Maslach & Leiter in The Truth About Burnout


"..burnout in individual workers says more about the conditions of their job than it does about them. Contrary to popular opinion, it's not the individual but the organization that needs to change ..." -- page 21


"Increasingly, we work in job settings in which human values place a distant second behind economic ones ... [W]hat inspires us to work well ... is ignored or played down." -- pages 9-10.


"Workers are conceding their time. They are working longer hours. They are taking work home, often continuing after hours on computer equipment they have purchased themselves. They are devoting more time to tasks that are not personally rewarding, that is, that are not enjoyable and do not further their careers." -- page 5


"In 1974, top U.S. CEOs got 35 times the average industrial wage; by 1994, this ratio had jumped to 187 times the pay of average workers." -- page 9


"Organizational policies that send the message that money takes precedence over employees causes mutual respect and shared values to erode." -- pages 15-16


"The conventional wisdom is that burnout is primarily a problem of the individual. That is, people burn out because of flaws in their characters, behavior, or productivity. According to this perspective, people are the problem, and the solution is to change them or get rid of them ...  But our research argues most emphatically otherwise. As a result of extensive study, we believe that burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work ... When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it." -- page 18


The excerpts above are from Maslach, C. & Leiter, P. The Truth About Burnout : How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997.


Click here to read our review of The Truth About Burnout.












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