Research Watch: Child Welfare Work: Hazardous to your Health?

Diana Zuckerman
January 1, 1999

Child Welfare Work: Hazardous to your Health?

Using Participatory Research to Help Promote the Physical and Mental Health of Female Social Workers in Child Welfare

By Nora Gold

Child Welfare, Vol. 77, No. 6, Nov/Dec. 1998
Child Welfare League of America, (202) 638-2952. Free at

Is your job hazardous to your mental and physical health? Female workers from child welfare agencies say yes in a recent study.

Forty female social workers from child welfare agencies in Ontario, Canada, were interviewed in six focus groups, each lasting 90 minutes. To encourage open and frank discussion, frontline workers were in four groups, and supervisors were in two other groups.

The women were proud of their work, describing it as "exciting," "challenging," and "rewarding." The most rewarding aspect of work was "getting results" or "seeing people change." They also mentioned support from other workers on their teams and the support and trust of their supervisors as positive aspects of work.

But the women described the expectations on them as "impossible," especially in terms of the workload. Since they could never say no when someone needed services, one worker described her agency as a "dumping ground." Another worker described the overwhelming workload bluntly:

"You just can't fit 10 pounds of s*** into a five-pound bag."
The unpredictability and lack of control over scheduling were especially stressful. The women also complained that court decisions undermined their authority and that insufficient resources sometimes meant that children were removed from their homes unnecessarily. Several expressed the irony of being perceived as very powerful by the parents and children, when they themselves felt disempowered and worried about making a mistake, like being "on trial all the time."

Stress was exacerbated by:

-Participating in painful decisions, such as removing children from their families. "It's being day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, face-to-face with human suffering," one woman said. "We are sponges for pain," said another. " We just soak it up."

-Fear of physical danger, especially when on home visits, coupled with concern about their own children being harmed.

-Double duty of having a stressful job and then going home to care for their own families.

-Sexism in the courts, schools, and the agencies; women were described as doing the "hands on" work while men were quickly promoted to administrative positions.

The women described how work harmed their physical health, saying that minor illnesses worsened because they couldn't take the time to go the doctor or take time off from work when they were ill. When they were at home with an illness, they described being disturbed so often that "there's no point staying home, so I might as well go back to work."

The women also described the emotional exhaustion of their work. "I have nothing left at the end of the day, nothing left for my family," one said. Several mentioned mood swings, anger, depression, fearfulness, anxiety, paranoia, and self-doubt.

As part of the "participatory research" design of the study, the author held an hour-long follow-up meeting at each of the two agencies where the women worked, including supervisors and frontline workers. The women were encouraged to consider ways they could change their agency to improve their work experiences. Although participants made several suggestions (such as working with the labor union), the suggestions received little support, and the women reported being too busy to attend future meetings.

The use of focus groups is controversial in research. The advantage is that individuals can express themselves freely, and the results are inherently interesting because they are human beings talking instead of statistical analysis. The disadvantages are that one or more talkative, opinionated individuals can "take over" the conversation, and other members of the group may be reluctant to disagree or to discuss other issues that they believe are important. And 40 women may not be typical of all child welfare workers. Individuals who are willing to give up 90 minutes of their time for a focus group might be those that are most unhappy.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Child Welfare Work: Hazardous to your Health?" Research Watch review of "Using Participatory Research to Help Promote the Physical and Mental Health of Female Social Workers in Child Welfare". Youth Today, Dec/Jan 1999, p. 10.

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