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The Experience of Workplace Stress and Compassion Satisfaction of Licensed Social Workers

Employed in fast-paced, often poorly funded agencies and working with clients who have experienced significant traumas, many licensed social workers are believed to experience a high degree of stress. At the same time, many feel emotionally fulfilled by their work and experience “compassion satisfaction,” i.e., deriving pleasure from being able to perform their work effectively, helping others and contributing to the greater good of society. Yet, solid evidence confirming these beliefs is lacking. This paper discusses the findings of a study that examined workplace stress and compassion satisfaction, and workplace environment factors impacting these phenomena among more than 6,000 licensed social workers.

Workplace Stress Among Social Workers

While generalizable research studies on social workers and workplace stress in the USA are limited, a study in England comparing work-related stress among 26 occupations found that “social service workers providing care” were among six occupations with the highest levels of stress (Johnson, S., Cooper, C., Cartwright, S., Donald, I., Taylor. P. & Millet, C. (2005). The experience of work-related stress across occupations. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 20(2), 178-187). An Australian study (Harris, L.M., Cumming, S.R., Campbell, A.J. (2006). Stress and psychological well-being among allied health professionals. Journal of Allied Health, 35(4), 198-207) compared various aspects of workplace stress among social workers, psychologists, and three other health profession and found that social workers reported the highest level of workplace stress related to “client” dimension; they also were over-represented in their experience of depression. Finally, Stevens and Higgins (Stevens, M., & Higgins, D.J. (2002). The influence of risk and protective factors on burnout experienced by those who work with maltreated children. Child Abuse Review, 11(5), 313-331) found that 100% of their sample of child welfare workers working with maltreated children in Victoria, Australia scored in the high range of emotional exhaustion. There is no question that social workers experience high levels of stress in many different settings.

Compassion Satisfaction Among Social Workers

Despite the greater attention paid to workplace stress, a few international studies noted the considerable satisfaction social workers derive from helping others. For example, in a large study in England, the occupation of social work ranked 17 out of 88 regarding job satisfaction, higher than medical practitioners and nurses (Rose, M. 2003, Good deal, bad deal? Job satisfaction in occupations. Work, Employment and Society, 17(3), 503-530). A Canadian survey of child welfare social workers (Stalker, C.A., Mandell, D., Frensch, K.M., Harvey, C., & Wright, M. (2007). Child welfare workers who are exhausted yet satisfied with their jobs: How do they do it? Child and Family Social Work, 12, (2), 182-191) found that despite high levels of emotional exhaustion, 41% of workers were highly satisfied with their employment and only 10% scored in the low range of job satisfaction. A study of hospice social workers (Pelon, S.B.,2017. Compassion fatigue and compassion satisfaction in hospice social work. Journal of Social Work in End-of-Life and Palliative Care, 13(2-3), 134-150) found that despite the vast majority indicating compassion fatigue, only 20% scored in the low range of compassion satisfaction. The above studies tended to have small sample sizes, and many did not focus exclusively on licensed social workers. Thus, the need for our study.

Our Study

While a detailed description of our study (methodology and data analysis) is available elsewhere (see Acknowledgement), we had 6,112 state licensed social workers respond to a 75-item online survey which included questions focusing on their experiences and feelings regarding their work. We used an 8-item Workplace Stress Scale which included questions such as “Conditions at work are unpleasant or sometimes even unsafe” and “I find it difficult to express my opinions or feelings about my job conditions to my superiors.” Five categories of workplace stress were scores: No Stress; Low; Moderate; Severe; and Profound. We also used the 10-item compassion satisfaction subscale of the Professional Quality of Life Scale (ProQOL Scale). (Stamm, B.H. (2010). The concise ProQOL Manual (2nd ed.). Pocatello, ID: ProQOL.org., p.12). Sample items include: “I like my work as a helper;” and “I have happy thoughts and feelings about those I help and how I can help them.” The responses were categorized as: “low,” “average” and “high” compassion satisfaction. In addition, we asked respondents their level of agreement to two statements: 1) “I am valued as a professional in society;” and 2) “I am glad I chose social work as my profession.” The five response choices ranged from “strongly agree,” to “strongly disagree.” Basic demographic information data were obtained.

Description of Responders

The mean age of our respondents was 46 (S.D.=13), with 89% reporting that they were female, 83% white, and 55% Christians. The mean number of years working as a social worker was 16 (S.D. = 11), with 80% having an MSW. Thirty-nine percent were working directly with clients, 23% of were doing indirect work, and the rest did both. A small number (12%) worked solely in private practice. Majority worked in the field of “mental health” (61%), followed by “children/adolescents” (50%). Here’s what we found:

Workplace stress: When compared with a 2001 national Harris Interactive survey of U.S working population (Parmar, K., Solanski, Parikh, M., & Vankar, G.K. (2015). Gender differences in stress at work place among doctors and nurses. GCSMC Journal of Medical Science, 4(2), 108-113), we found that 20% of social workers scored in the highest two stress categories (Severe and Profound) vs. 11% in the general population, and 48% scored in the lowest two stress categories of the scale vs. 68% of the general population. It is clear, that compared to the general workforce, licensed social workers in the U.S. experience higher levels of stress.

Compassion satisfaction: Nearly 60% of participants working directly with clients reported high levels of compassion satisfaction, with less than one percent reporting low levels.

Valued as a professional in society: 57% of respondents felt that they felt valued as a professional by society.

Glad chose social work as a profession: 82% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they are glad they chose social work as a profession.

Workplace environment issues: Social workers indicated that were satisfied with Receiving Sufficient Training (82%); Access to Technologies (80%); being Safe from Physical Harm (79%), and having Sufficient Workspace (78%). Not surprisingly, the lowest score was for Satisfied with Salary/Income (47%). Only 60% of respondents felt that they receive good supervision, 66% felt that the size of their caseloads was manageable, and 71% felt valued in their workplace as a professional.

Demographic factors: Issues of race/ethnicity, religion, and age were all found to be significant factors in compassion satisfaction and are discussed below.

In Summary: This study of licensed social workers found that although average workplace stress levels were above those of U.S. workers, the helping aspects of the profession are rewarding for many. It also found that levels of workplace stress and compassion satisfaction were inversely correlated, implying that too much workplace stress negatively impacted on their compassion satisfaction. The greatest factors impacting on these aspects were workplace environment issues, highlighting the importance of increasing salaries, sense of feeling valued as a professional in the workplace, improving the quality of supervision and limiting caseloads. In addition, they indicated a need for greater support at the workplace for social workers with mental and physical health problems. Another notable finding is that although only 57% of the respondents expressed that they felt valued as a professional in society, 83% were glad that they chose social work as their profession.

The most surprising finding related to the impact of race/ethnicity on compassion satisfaction and workplace stress with black and Latino social workers expressing higher levels of compassion satisfaction and lower levels of workplace stress than white social workers, while Asian social workers had the same views as white participants. Further research to understand these dynamics is certainly needed.

In addition, social workers who identified as Buddhist, demonstrated higher levels of compassion satisfaction than Christian social workers. Finally, as found in other research, older age was associated with higher levels of compassion satisfaction. However, years of experience was not associated with compassion satisfaction or workplace stress. Social workers who engaged in both indirect and direct practice roles were more likely to score higher in compassion satisfaction than those who only engaged in direct practice. In regard to workplace stress, it was not surprising that child welfare was a predictor of higher workplace stress. The only other field of practice that predicted increased stress was working with immigration and refugees (note: the data were collected before the election of President Trump), with lowest stress experienced by those working in employee assistance programs, as well in the area of “housing and homelessness.” The latter result is indeed quite surprising and needs to be further investigated.

In conclusion, the findings of this study add to the limited research data regarding licensed social workers in the US and the factors affecting their work. Additional research is certain needed to further explore the issues discussed in this article.

Acknowledgement. The author would like to acknowledge the contributions of Drs. Evan Senrich and Jeffrey Steen to the original study on which this paper is based. A full description of this study and its findings has been published in the Journal of Social Service Research authored by Evan Senreich, Shulamith Lala Ashenberg Straussner & Jeffrey Steen (2019): The Work Experiences of Social Workers: Factors Impacting Compassion Satisfaction and Workplace Stress, Journal of Social Service Research, DOI: 10.1080/01488376.2018. More information regarding our study can be obtained by visiting https://wp.nyu.edu/socialworkers.

  1. Lala A. Straussner, PhD, LCSW, is Professor and Director, Post-Master’s Program in the Clinical Approaches to the Addictions, and Founding Editor, Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions at New York University Silver School of Social Work. She can be reached at sls1@nyu.edu.

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