Academic journal article Child Welfare

A More Humane Workplace: Responding to Child Welfare Workers' Personal Losses

Academic journal article Child Welfare

A More Humane Workplace: Responding to Child Welfare Workers' Personal Losses

Article excerpt

The personal losses of employees, such as the death of a family member, divorce, or serious illness, can diminish work performance and increase stress. This study surveyed 106 child welfare workers on the type of personal loss they experienced; the kinds of benefits and emotional support they received from their employing organization, supervisor, and coworkers; their expectations; and potential problem areas. Eighty-five percent of the workers endured a loss during their current employment. They received the most help from their coworkers, followed by their immediate supervisors, and then the employing organization. Those suffering a loss would have liked more emotional support, acknowledgment of the loss, and a longer leave of absence for recovery than they received.

Over the past decade, child welfare workers have become prime candidates for stress, burnout, and job impairment. Child welfare work is described as demanding, tiring, and emotionally and physically depleting. Poor working conditions, difficulty in reconciling incompatible requests, ambiguous role prescriptions, and overwhelming case situations are cited as possible factors contributing to worker stress [Daley 1979; Harrison 1980]. LeCroy and Rank [1986] found that child welfare workers generally had significantly greater emotional exhaustion than did workers in family services or mental health. Rycraft [1994] concluded that due to the constant demands and responsibilities, even the most dedicated and committed child welfare workers experienced periods of decreased energy and drive.

Child welfare workers do not exist in an isolated work environment, however. The normal life span transitions and losses they experience further compound the stresses and strains of child welfare work. Thoreson et al. [1989] found that personal stress caused by illness or death of family members, marital or relationship problems, financial problems, and personal physical or mental illness contributed to impairment of human service professionals. Impairment may involve failure to provide competent care, violation of ethical standards, an inability to control personal stress, or excessive emotional reactions that impede professional functioning [Reamer 1992].

The literature on worker stress recommends a satisfying personal life to counteract this malaise and to deflect job-related strain [Freudenberger 1980; Pines & Kafry 1978]. When personal loss strikes, not only is the quality of one's life threatened, but the loss is often accompanied by extreme psychic pain, confusion, a host of debilitating symptoms, reduced productivity, and increased health-related problems [Weiss 1988]. A worker who is depleted finds it difficult to constantly give to deprived clients, deal with continual separation and loss in clients' lives, maintain an alert awareness of realistic dangers to children, and cope with a clientele and public that are often unappreciative [Kadushin 1980]. Due to these far-reaching consequences, further examination of the concept of loss, its effect on the already beleaguered child welfare worker, and the agency's response to workers' personal losses is warranted.


To better understand how loss and the grieving process affect the child welfare worker, Silverman's [1981] conceptualization of the mourning process will be explored. In her work with those suffering a loss, Silverman noted three phases: impact, recoil, and accommodation.

During the impact phase the individual suffering a loss often feels emotional numbness, a state of disbelief, an inability to concentrate, confusion, and disorganization. The numbness serves as a protection from the sudden and intense pain of the loss. It also enables the person to perform reflexively, as though on automatic pilot.

The recoil phase is experienced as more painful because the numbness has left and the ability to feel returns. Raw emotions, such as anger, bitterness, and guilt, are unleashed. …

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