Building 'resilience' won't stop traumatised social workers quitting

Diane Galpin, Annastasia Maksymluk and Andy Whiteford
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

A healthy workforce is a fundamental prerequisite to ensure children and their families receive the best possible social work support. The positive effect of a stable and experienced workforce cannot be overestimated when one considers that inspectors say reduced staff turnover can lead to better quality services.

However, these aims have been frustrated as social workers leave the profession due to stress and burnout. Analysis of the children and family social work workforce in England published by the Department for Education in 2019 suggests workforce instability is an ongoing problem. Figures suggest 35% of social workers leave their local authority within two years, while 33% leave within five years. This means 68% of full-time equivalent children and family social workers were in service with their local authority for less than five years.

In seeking to address this, regulators require social workers demonstrate resilience as a professional capability. However, our previous research suggests this has a negative impact on professionals. It leads to a focus on the individual’s “failure” to cope with the pressure of work, rather than identifying and addressing organisational failings, such as a lack of resources, high caseloads and increased bureaucracy.

Related: Social workers aren't failing the system – the system is failing them

This continued workforce instability has been investigated by the government, which labels it a “recruitment and retention” issue. But that downplays the distress that research suggests social workers experience, and its impact on individuals’ resilience to remain in the profession. The need for employers to acknowledge distress to prevent social worker burnout has been highlighted by Prof David Shemmings. Yet government, employers and regulators still expect professionals to carry the weight of responsibility to work on themselves to reduce stress.

While a new diagnostic tool launched by Bedfordshire University and a revised workforce health check, led by the What Works for Children’s Social Care and the Local Government Association, may be helpful, there is a concern that these approaches might replicate the negative focus on the individual practitioner. Research on how to build resilience in the workforce suggests mindfulness as an approach to enhance workforce wellbeing.

The question is whether these new initiatives will address the trauma and distress experienced by practitioners, and acknowledge the political and ideological context in how they are applied?

As Ronald Purser, a professor of management at San Francisco State University, suggests in respect of the relationship between mindfulness and ideology:

The so-called mindfulness revolution meekly accepts the dictates of the marketplace. Guided by a therapeutic ethos aimed at enhancing the mental and emotional resilience of individuals, it endorses neoliberal assumptions that everyone is free to choose their responses, manage negative emotions, and “flourish” through various modes of self-care. Framing what they offer in this way, most teachers of mindfulness rule out a curriculum that critically engages with causes of suffering in the structures of power and economic systems of capitalist society.

We would also add that government and leaders in the profession need to explicitly acknowledge the trauma social workers experience in the workplace, along with the trauma they witness in the lives of those they work with. This is often due on both counts to under-resourcing across inter-related systems that impact hugely on individuals’ lives, such as housing, benefits, education, employment. Inadequate resourcing of these basic essentials of life are the root cause of much that can make the job of social work untenable.

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When combined with under-resourcing in service provision – suitable placements, mental health, substance misuse and domestic abuse services – no one wins. No amount of resilience, mindfulness, tools or standardised processes will resolve these issues.

There is only so much social workers can take on because there is only so much they can change. The same may also be said of those who require services, and to an extent employers providing services. While individual groups work to develop resolutions to these problems, they will flounder unless the ideology that underpins their application is exposed and addressed.

• Diane Galpin is academic lead for social work at the University of Plymouth, where Annastasia Maksymluk and Andy Whiteford are both lecturers