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Study suggests that more qualifications and more support increase social worker resilience

Securing post-qualifying qualifications can help make social workers more resistent to burnout, initial findings from research into building resilience amongst social workers in Northern Ireland has suggested.

Speaking at a Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers (NIASW – part of BASW) World Social Work Day celebration in Stormont the report’s author said her research indicated that emotional exhaustion and a lack of personal accomplishment leads to a lowering of resilience in social workers.

Paula McFadden, PHD student at University of Ulster, said that while some social workers are inherently “committed survivors” – able to withstand with the pressures of child protection social work – there are clear factors that can influence the likelihood of burnout for those less naturally able to cope.

Drawing on her research, which will not be formally published until October, Ms McFadden said good management, cohesive teams, peer support, experience and post-qualifying qualifications were all important factors in determining whether a social worker is able to stay in child protection. Without these, the research suggests, many practitioners often consider finding alternative employment.

Ms McFadden described how many of the 162 social workers involved in the study reported a “24/7, 365” commitment to the job, regularly receiving work calls when off sick or on holiday. The study suggests that this is not sustainable for individuals in the long-term, leading to practitioners leaving the profession.

One newly qualified social worker said that the stresses and pressures of the job made them “willing to leave [the profession] with no job to go to”. Another social worker said that they are so busy they regularly go from 7am to 7pm without eating.

More positively, another said that they loved the fast pace and “buzz” of the job – “it’s energising to know that your work makes a significant difference to people’s lives.”

The research also found crude evidence that female social workers demonstrated significantly more resilience than males, although a distortion in the respondent samples – 22 males were interviewed compared with 140 females – makes scientific conclusions difficult to draw.

Commenting on the findings Bridget Robb, BASW development manager, told the audience of public and third sector practitioners from across Northern Ireland that the survey offered “a useful snapshot in time”.

She added: “Children tell us that they want continuity with their social workers, and there is evidence of this happening in the survey, but it is not good in the long run if social workers are not ever getting a proper rest from the job, and are not looking after their own health while at work.

“The study suggests that such commitment at the expense of their own wellbeing is unsustainable in the long run, and will only lead to more people leaving the profession, which ultimately means a poorer service for the children they’re trying to protect.”

Full research findings are due to be published in October.