Report Explores Social Worker Stress

A new report from the NASW Center for Workforce Studies shows that social work professionals often face challenges or obstacles that may cause them to feel overwhelmed and stressed. The report, "Stress at Work: How Do Social Workers Cope?" is based on data from a recent NASW membership survey.

The report reveals that social workers providing direct services, particularly mental health and health care, may experience higher levels of stress due to their emotionally attenuating practice setting.

Among respondents, 31 percent said that a lack of time to complete the necessary tasks of their jobs was a major issue. Heavy workloads were noted as stressors by 25 percent of respondents. Working with difficult or challenging clients was cited by 19 percent.

Salaries were also a source of stress. Among respondents, 19 percent said their salaries were not comparable to the salaries of people in similar professions who perform similar work, and 16 percent felt they were poorly compensated for their work.

Stress-related health concerns were also reported. Among respondents, 70 percent in health care settings reported feeling fatigue from stress. For those working in mental health fields, 38 percent reported concerns about psychological problems.

Other stressors identified by participants included:

  • Having more responsibilities than they can handle with ease (15 percent).
  • Needing to complete routine tasks that have little intrinsic value (14 percent).
  • Having few opportunities for advancement or promotion (14 percent).
  • Being expected to work long hours (13 percent).
  • Receiving few resources to adequately accomplish work tasks (11 percent).
  • Having conflicting or unclear job expectations (10 percent).
  • Getting minimal support from co-workers and supervisors (9 percent).
  • Being unable to balance professional and personal life (8 percent).

Among all the social workers responding, exercise was the leading method for alleviating stress, followed by meditation and therapy.

"Work-related stress and burnout are common in today's workforce, including individuals practicing social work," the report notes. "Given their profession's client-centered nature, stress and burnout are topics of concern among social workers — particularly among those providing direct services.

"Considering their experiences of insufficient time to complete day-to-day work tasks, heavy workloads, poor compensation, challenging and/or difficult clients, few resources, long work hours and unclear job expectations, it is not surprising that social workers experience work-related stress," the report states. "Under these less-than-optimal work conditions, social workers are often 'pushed to the limit' when trying to complete their job requirements."

The report comes from a recent online NASW membership workforce survey. The survey was administered through NASW's Web site from Aug. 30 to Nov. 30, 2007. Members were invited to participate through the electronic Memberlink newsletter, Specialty Practice Section alerts, the News and the NASW Web site. The survey received 3,653 responses.

The average age of respondents in the online survey was 45, and 83 percent were female. Among respondents, 86 percent identified as white, 7 percent as African American and 2 percent each as Asian American, Chicano/Mexican American, Native American and other Hispanic/Latino. (Some identified more than one category.)

The survey followed up on the NASW Center for Workforce Studies' benchmark national study of licensed social workers in 2004. That survey offered a wide range of information about social workers' professional work environments and roles.