Academic journal article Social Work

Burnout and Physical Health among Social Workers: A Three-Year Longitudinal Study

Academic journal article Social Work

Burnout and Physical Health among Social Workers: A Three-Year Longitudinal Study

Article excerpt

Social workers deliver a broad range of vital services and, thus, play a critical role in ensuring the health and well-being of society's most vulnerable members. However, the high demand for their services--coupled with increasingly diminishing resources--can present significant challenges for social workers. According to a recent national study (Whitaker, Weismiller, & Clark, 2006), social workers face increasing levels of paperwork and inadequate supervision. Beset by chronic staff shortages and turnover, social workers tend to be overworked and are often asked to take on large client caseloads. Given the heavy demands placed on them, it is not surprising that social workers often experience psychological distress and, eventually, high levels of burnout.

Burnout is a prolonged psychological response to chronic workplace stressors and is theorized to include three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism, and diminished personal accomplishment (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). Over the past decade, clear empirical evidence has emerged regarding the prevalence of burnout in the social work profession. For example, on the basis of a sample of 751 social workers, Siebert (2005) found that about three-fourths reported having had trouble with burnout during their careers. This high prevalence of burnout among social workers has been found across the broad range of practice fields. For example, Oktay (1992) found high levels of emotional exhaustion and depersonalization among hospital AIDS social workers. Poulin and Walter (1993a) examined burnout among 1,196 gerontological social workers and found that about 60 percent of them were experiencing moderate to high levels of emotional exhaustion. Similarly, Lloyd and King (2004) reported that Australian social workers working in mental health settings exhibited high levels of emotional exhaustion. In a study of 151 frontline child protective services (CPS) workers, Anderson (2000) found that about 62 percent of participants were experiencing high levels of emotional exhaustion.

Social worker burnout is a serious problem because it can adversely affect the quality and stability of social services. The literature suggests that social workers experiencing burnout have an increased risk of psychological distress, such as depression (Evans et al., 2006; Siebert, 2004; N. Stanley, Manthorpe, & White, 2007), which can ultimately lead to increased turnover (Kim & Stoner, 2008; Mot Barak, Nissly, & Levin, 2001). Although a significant number of research studies have shown the negative effects of burnout on social workers' practice and performance outcomes, less is understood about the effects of burnout on the physical health of social workers.

The role of psychological distress in physical illness is more established for the general workforce. For example, in a 20-year follow-up study based on a U.S. national sample, Ferraro and Nuriddin (2006) found that high levels of distress raised mortality risk. Darr and Johns (2008) recently conducted a meta-analysis to examine the negative effects of work strain on the psychological and physical symptoms that often lead to absenteeism at work; their results suggest that psychological symptoms do affect physical illness. Extensive research has shown that job-related stressors and strain can have adverse health effects through several potential mechanisms, such as decreased immunity functioning and poor health behaviors (Melamed, Shirom, Toker, Berliner, & Shapira, 2006). For example, Nakamura, Hagase, Yoshida, and Ogino (1999) found that depersonalization (one of the dimensions of burnout) was associated with diminished cellular immunity. Other studies suggest that job stressors can also lead to negative health behaviors, such as smoking, alcohol or substance abuse, and less exercise (Johansson, Johnson, & Hall, 1991)--all activities known to have adverse effects on a person's health (E Jones & Bright, 2001). …

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