The Great Resignation: Social Workers Seek Better Work Experiences, But Most Stay Within Profession

By Alison Laurio

people with briefcases and work badges walk in criss-crossing paths from one to to another

The number of Americans quitting their jobs was regularly reported as it began and mushroomed throughout 2021.

The term Great Resignation came into wide use in 2021 and now is common in everyday language and news reports. This year on January 4, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported November’s resignations were the highest to date, increasing the 2021 total “separations” to 6.3 million, a “quits rate” of 3 percent. That included more than 52,000 nationwide who left jobs in “health care and social assistance,” the category that includes social work.

An October 13 story from Catalyst, a nonprofit that promotes progress and inclusion for women, covered a survey it took with CNBC that found “more than seven of 10 employees (76 percent) say they want their company to make work permanently flexible in terms of schedule or location.”

Christian Sutherland, CEO of Glassdoor, which provides information about companies, jobs and job seekers, said the pandemic made workers think about what they want from their employers. He told the BBC: “The companies that create the best experience for their workers are the jobs where people are the most willing to return.”

A web search early this year for “start new practice” on the MyNASW Community forum produced about 6,000 posts and answers. “How-to” questions covered the range of practice areas, legal issues, to-do tasks and information for starting a new private practice. Each person who posted a question received several responses and many received numerous responses.

It appears many social workers who left or are leaving their jobs are staying in the field. Many are changing jobs or opening private practices as they seek to create that best experience for themselves while they continue helping others.

Workforce Outlook: Positive

Bureau of Labor Statistics data for social work show the job outlook as growth overall, faster than the average for all occupations, with about 78,300 openings each year, on average, from 2020 to 2030.

person skiing downhill, with resignation slips in their wake

“Many of these openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire,” it states. During that time frame, every job category is expected to grow.

Child, family and school social work jobs are projected to grow 13 percent. Child and family social workers “will be needed to work with families to strengthen parenting skills, prevent child abuse and identify alternative homes for children who are unable to live with their biological families,” the BLS states.

Health care jobs also are projected for 13 percent growth, and “will continue to be needed to help aging populations and their families adjust to new treatments, medications and lifestyles.”

Health care and substance abuse social work is projected at 15 percent growth, the BLS reports.

“Employment will grow as more people seek treatment for mental illness and substance abuse. In addition, drug offenders are increasingly being sent to drug treatment programs, which are being staffed by these social workers, rather than being sent to jail,” it states. The projected employment of 804,800 in 2030 is up 12 percent from the 2020 listed employment of 715,600.

Children's Services Crisis

The current statewide social worker vacancy rate in Idaho is 40 percent to 50 percent, and the turnover among midlevel social workers in child welfare jumped by 19 percent from 2020 to 36 percent in 2021, said Delmar de la Torre Stone, executive director of NASW-Idaho and a registered lobbyist.

The governor approved funding 24 new social workers, he said, but the state auditor’s recommendation was to hire more than 70.

“Idaho is booming,” he said. “A lot of people are moving here, mostly from California. They’re pretty conservative and definitely changing the politics.”

“One social worker told me they view children more as property, and they want total control of what they want children to learn in school. It doesn’t fit with what we know about modern America.”

Some social workers have quit, and all but one of those have taken another social work job. For example, one left to work for a Portland, Ore., treatment program, said Stone, who also is NASW-Oregon executive director. Another, who “was an outstanding child welfare social worker who finally couldn’t do it any more” accepted a position at Boise State University, he said. “She gave a two-week notice and was gone. A lot of them are afraid to talk, but the message is ‘this is horrific.’”

Stone has seen child welfare supervisors quit. “That is a very important role,” he said. “The beginners are pretty green, and there’s a huge learning curve, except for a seasoned professional. When we lose them, there isn’t anyone who fills the gap.”

The one social worker he knows of who left the field after quitting is a man who accepted a sales position who had never really been totally happy doing social work, Stone said. “From what I’m hearing, it’s varied. Some are trying to do private practice. Most are looking for other kinds of jobs in the profession.”

“It’s sad to me,” Stone said. “I thought we had one of the best-ranked social welfare systems in the nation, but it’s plummeted. It’s shut down. It shows if you don’t pay attention to these systems how quickly they can devolve. We have a quiet avalanche.”

Calling it Quits

About 600 Kentucky social workers quit their jobs from 2020 to 2021 during the pandemic.

“It was a hemorrhage,” said NASW-Kentucky Executive Director Brenda Rosen. They left for a number of reasons, she said. Some could no longer take the stressful conditions; the pay was not that good; there were a lot of concerns over safety issues; and there was secondary trauma.

“They could make more money working in Target than working for the state,” Rosen said. “Some social workers have part-time jobs to make ends meet.”

“The pandemic was kind of a perfect storm for bringing serious issues to the forefront, and that’s what happened this past year,” she said.

The top social work issue statewide is child abuse and neglect, and not all state “social service” workers are social workers, so it’s pretty important that we advocate for our social workers, Rosen said.

A November 16 headline in the Louisville Courier Journal reads: “Frustrated state social workers gather at Kentucky Capitol to protest working conditions.” The story reports that about 50 people gathered, “hoping to highlight” high caseloads and low pay, saying there was stress on child abuse workers and the ‘“exodus” of some co-workers made the situation worse. Some had caseloads of 75 to 100, the article says.

The governor stepped up and helped, said Rosen, saying “Gov. Andy Beshear made every effort to work across party lines.”

A December 8 headline in that same paper read: “Gov. Andy Beshear announces pay raises, other changes for state’s embattled social workers.”

The governor ordered “an immediate 10 percent pay raise,” the paper stated, saying at a news conference that “each and every one of our social workers is absolutely essential.”

Beshear said the raises would affect 3,922 workers and cost about $15 million. The governor said he “plans to seek money for an additional 300 social service workers for the understaffed Department for Community Based Service” and will recommend the loan forgiveness program for social service workers, and recommend “hero pay” as well, the paper states. Beshear, a Democrat, is pretty supportive, Rosen said. “We’re grateful to him.”

people walking over the phrase The Great Resignation

A large number of the social workers who quit went to higher-paying jobs, she said, and others took work not related to the field. Some became restaurant servers, where they were paid more and didn’t have to “carry any stress with them when they went home.”

“I think it’s interesting to hear the term ‘Great Resignation,’” Rosen said. “I think it’s anything but great. There’s nothing great about it. I look at it like it’s the biggest hemorrhage of social work and social service, and it has been devastating for our state. How do we heal that wound?”

“We have had great conversations with elected officials and have educated the public about what social work is,” she added. “Now we need to feel more engaged and empowered, and make sure it heals properly.”

Colorado Worker Shortages

Colorado’s tale of two areas shows some city-rural differences, but both areas need more workers.

“Overall, we certainly are seeing increasing rates of burnout in our social work community and in the mental health community at large,” said NASW-Colorado Executive Director Leanne Rupp. “We have a major workforce issue for Colorado mental health care workers that was exacerbated exponentially by the pandemic.”

The workforce shortage stands out more in rural areas, but it runs across urban areas as well. As of Dec. 1, 2021, the state workforce need tallied 1,100, and nearly 900 of those positions were clinical jobs, she said.

“You can see the impact in some rural areas in mountain towns,” Rupp said. “There is high-cost living and low payment rates, and... housing is incredibly costly. It’s hard to recruit.”

person meditating wearing work badge

As telehealth services increased nationwide, the landscape for people to provide in-person services shifted, and those locked into office leases still had to pay for spaces they no longer used, she said. “I think social workers, in particular with other mental health workers, struggled with the increasing demand for services and also with the ability to ensure having self-care.”

Rupp believes those combined pressures were factors for an increase in mental health provider burnout, but she has not heard that social workers are changing professions or leaving the field.

But, she said, there are some clinicians who leave more rural areas for jobs in metro areas because city jobs pay more and have lower caseloads.

“I do know many members are continuing to work through telehealth and are closing physical office spaces,” she said. “Telehealth is a safer way for their clients and themselves.”

Colorado has 17 community health centers in rural parts of the state designed to serve specific population areas, “a fantastic model but challenged in their ability to pay appropriate wages,” Rupp said.

Housing in rural areas can be more costly, especially in mountain towns, so the higher housing costs and lower wages have dampened hiring at the centers, she said. “Because caseloads were rising dramatically, and because workers were asked to do more with less, there was more than double the turnover rate in 2021.”

While there is a general mental health workforce shortage and more are needed, there is a greater intensity of need for children’s mental health services, she said.

Youth mental health services were declared an emergency in mid-2021, Rupp said, when there were a greater number of ER visits for suicide attempts, and more visits for anxiety.

“We are trying to adapt,” she said.

As child advocates and legislative advocates, Rupp said the chapter encourages supporting rural health care clinician expansion through promoting legislative efforts, a rural $1,000 tax credit program, and online coursework availability.

And because of COVID’s mental health impact on youth, the chapter developed and helped pass legislation benefiting youth in 2021 that created a free online mental health screening tool and access to three free therapy sessions, as well as the ability to have as many as six sessions depending on funding. It is for all youth in the state up to age 18. For youths with a developmental disability diagnosis, the sessions can be accessed for free to age 21, she said.

“The youth can consent to the health screenings when they’re 12, and if they screen positive, they can connect with a mental health clinician who is approved for this program,” Rupp said.

As a response to COVID, the “I Matter” mental health program for youth is free and offers counseling for up to 10,000 youths.

“We worked with a state legislator who developed the bill based on mental health support for Colorado youth in light of the pandemic, and we got $9 million in COVID relief funds appropriated for this,” she said. “It’s a wonderful program. We’ve had a lot of engagement since it launched last year. By late January, the program had provided 1,300 therapy sessions for youth, with hundreds more scheduled.”

The chapter marketed the program to Colorado schools so youths can access the screenings at school if they don’t have a computer at home, Rupp said. And they had posters, cards and stickers made that they gave to school districts. “We have a sister Colorado School Social Work Association, and we’re partnering with them,” she said.

Another priority legislation last year was a bill that mandates no co-pays and no billing for an annual mental wellness exam. It took effect as a requirement for large employers’ plans in January, and smaller employers’ plans should put it into effect in January 2023.

“The ACA is required to cover it at no cost,” Rupp said. “It allows for people to have an annual check, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s the first of its kind in the nation.”

It is hoped that the legislation, programs and other initiatives in Colorado will not only benefit clients, but also help to remedy the state’s mental health workforce challenges.

Social Work Advocates April/May 2022 issue with The Great Resignation on cover

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