Using Participatory Research to Help Promote the Physical and Mental Health of Female Social Workers in Child Welfare

Article excerpt

Forty female workers from child welfare agencies were interviewed in focus groups regarding the positive and negative aspects of their work, their perceptions of its effects on their physical and mental health, and what they did in response to either cope or to protect their health. The results showed that despite certain positive aspects of their work, these women overwhelmingly felt that their work had adversely affected both their physical and mental health, and that they used a variety of strategies (both problem focused and emotion focused) to cope. Implications are discussed in terms of the need for intervention at the micro-, mezzo-, and macrolevels, as well as in terms of the appropriateness of participatory research methods for future studies with this population.

Over the past 15 years, an impressive body of literature has helped to reconceptualize social work theory and practice from the perspective of a feminist critique [Bricker-Jenkins & Hooyman 1986; Collins 1986; Dominelli & McLeod 1989; Finch & Groves 1983; Hanmer & Statham 1989; Levine 1982; Meyer 1982; Russell 1989; Valentich 1986]. This critique, when applied to the field of child welfare, has deeply challenged not only the way child welfare work is currently conducted in North America, but more profoundly, the way it has been theoretically rooted in patriarchal assumptions and ideology [Baines et al.1991; Callahan 1993a,1993b,1985; Callahan & Attridge 1990; Costin 1985; Esposito & Fine 1985; Ferguson 1991; Gordon 1985; Guterman & Jayaratne 1994; Hutchison 1992; Meyer 1985; Swift 1995, 1991; Wattenberg 1985]. This literature articulates the gendered nature of child welfare, reflecting on the parallels between the experiences of the mother-clients and the female workers who serve them [Hanmer & Statham 1989], and the way that both groups of women are intermittently "pilloried" and "chronically neglected" [Callahan 1993a: 64], while bearing the brunt of the blame for what are really the failures of the larger society. As one worker in the present study said, "We feel sometimes just as abused as our clients but we have no one to advocate for us."

Frontline child welfare work is predominantly "women's work"; more than 70% of frontline workers are female [Callahan 1993a]. Men working in child welfare rise faster than women through the ranks, are disproportionately represented in senior management and supervisory positions, and earn more money [Callahan 1993b; Deardorf et al. 1995]. Frontline work in child welfare is known to be exceptionally stressful and emotionally draining [Callahan & Attridge 1990; Esposito & Fine 1985; Harrison 1980]. Many of the women who do this work do so at considerable personal cost, and out of a female ethic of "caring" that, although experienced as personal, is structurally determined [Baines et al. 1991; Callahan 1993a; Esposito & Fine 1985; Swift 1995]. Although there is some excellent analysis of this phenomenon, there is little in the literature about programs or interventions designed to help these workers. Given the implications for service delivery of the high rates of turnover and burnout in this field, this represents an important gap in knowledge.

A lack of attention to the health of these workers constitutes a second gap. The research thus far has focused on the stress of child welfare work and its emotional impact on the women who do it, but not on the costs to their physical and mental health. This is surprising, given the sizable body of research that shows a direct association between caregiving work and problems with both physical health [Baldwin & Glendinning 1983; Fisman 1988; Simon 1986] and mental health [Berry & Zimmerman 1983; DeMyer 1979; Farber 1959; Featherstone 1982; Finch & Groves 1983; Gold 1990; Goldberg et al. 1985; Simon 1986; Wikler et al. 1981].

In response to these two gaps, then, as well as to strong interest from the field,* this study was undertaken (1) to explore the physical and mental health effects of working in child welfare, and (2) to help the women doing this work develop strategies for the protection and promotion of their health. …