Social Work Burnout. Know The Signs

Why are so many social workers burning out? We’re good people who are staunchly committed to helping others but that sometimes comes at a cost. Make sure you’re aware of the signs of burnout…

Too many of our employers fail to empower us with the ability to perform effectively, doing so in a multitude of ways.


While social workers may be nice people, many social work middle managers do not appear on the surface to be skilled administrators. However, looking at the problem more closely, when upper management mandates cost-cutting, middle management is often left powerless to support front line staff. This results in front line workers who are overburdened with unmanageable workloads.

We suspect that social work middle managers, squeezed between the directives to “do more with less” and “work smarter,”  experience burnout just as intensely as front line workers. And we further suspect that we “front line workers” fail to recognize burnout in our supervisors as quickly as we recognize it in our same-level peers. But regardless of the reason for mismanagement … lack of training, lack of experience, lack of insight, etc. … when we find ourselves poorly treated by a social work supervisor, it seems to have an especially biting sting because it happens at the hands of “one of our own.”

Schedule Imbalance  

Many of us are employed in agencies which provide 24 hour services, such as hospitals, crisis centres, protective agencies, etc. It is to be expected that we all have to share the burden of working holidays, weekends, and off-shifts. Some employers, however, repeatedly assign undesirable shifts to the same workers.

Additionally, the distinction between being at work and time off from work becomes blurred when we are required to carry pagers and/or make ourselves available for consultation or crisis intervention on an on-call basis during our time away from the work setting.

Intense Work Days 

It is our observation that the most intensely burned out social workers are those with the most relentless work days. Far too many social work employers schedule exhausting shifts with no provision for meal breaks or short-term, essential mental/emotional refreshment. Burnout under these conditions appears quite pervasive to us.

Chronic Fear of Downsizing 

Money is the bottom line for most of our employers. Social workers in mental health, health care, and many public agencies function with constant fears and sometimes threats of staff reduction. Who’s next … me? This type of atmosphere does little to encourage professional autonomy, growth, or performance.

Lack of Professional Projects 

We’ve discovered from personal experience that when we do nothing but patient care day after day, week after week, month after month, we begin to lose enthusiasm for our job and our profession. Feelings of professional isolation emerge, as well as the decreased ability to contribute meaningfully to the organisation. Time and an opportunity to work on projects promoting better care of clients would lead to much more professional satisfaction!

Office and Inter-Agency

Politics. Who doesn’t hate this one? We’d all  rather  be jumping through hoops just doing our jobs and forget the power struggles that take up time needlessly. Many of our work days suffer from reduced productivity caused by the need to jump through internal or inter-agency hoops that are of little value for the care of our clients.

Lack of Appreciation

This certainly occurs in all professions. But have you ever noticed how social workers are supposed to routinely deal with difficult and stressful situations without so much as a “please” or “thank you?” 

Management sometimes compounds our feelings of being unappreciated with last-minute schedule changes, denial of employee benefits, staff reductions, etc.

Personal Risk  

Frequently social workers are expected to perform effectively in hazardous situations without adequate protective measures for our health and safety. Dangerous situations are common for MH social workers and child protective workers. Medical and prison social workers often face patients with an airborne-communicable disease such as TB without being informed of the risk and without adequate protective masks.

Social workers frequently must interact with clients on a crisis basis without security staff or basic safety precautions.  In our opinion, nothing else more clearly communicates an employer’s lack of appreciation and respect than to jeopardise social workers in this way during the course of our work day.