How one child welfare agency copes with burnout among its social workers

Burnout and high turnover are two serious problems facing child protective workers. But an organization here is making progress in coping with them. Its success is based on careful staff selection and on-the-job support. The workers deal with children whom adults, generally their parents, are accused of abusing or neglecting.

SCAN, the Supportive Child and Adult Network Inc., seeks to aid the parents of children judged abused or neglected, so the youngsters will not have to be removed from their families and the parents will not abuse their children again.

The burnout and high staff-turnover problems are related but are not identical. Linda A. Wolf, associate executive director of the American Public Welfare Association, says burnout is ``like battle fatigue'' and is ``an occupational hazard for people in helping professions.''

Often, Ms. Wolf says, idealistic people enter these professions, are then subjected to never-ending pressures, and lose their idealism and, eventually, ``their capacity to help.'' Many, saying they no longer care about their jobs, leave. This burnout is one reason for the high turnover rate (in some cities it's reported to be more than 50 percent a year) that can seriously hamper social welfare agencies.

Nationwide figures are difficult to come by. But experts in the social-service professions identify these as major problems in several fields, particularly among child protective workers.

Other professionals who feel burned out remain in the job, Wolf says, but ``distance themselves'' from the people they are supposed to help. ``They become the stereotypical bureaucrats,'' who move paper around but seem totally unconcerned about the welfare of the people they are supposed to aid.

Wolf says that what is required to combat burnout, and the resulting turnover, is the support for fellow workers. Frequently, she says, people who feel under this kind of stress are carrying too heavy a load, a load they may originally have sought.

Administrators, she says, ought to check to see whether employees facing burnout are being asked to do too much.

Some organizations can minimize burnout and turnover; one is SCAN. Several social workers have been with the agency three or more years and are still thriving.

Dr. E.Peter Wilson, SCAN's program director, offers two reasons that the agency and its workers have been able to prevent burnout: ``very careful selection process'' before hiring, plus lots of support from their colleagues at work. Workers with the least burnout problem, he says, are those with strong support at home and at work.

Marcia Witherspoon has her own recipe for burnout prevention; she has worked as a SCAN social worker for 2 years, and for two years before that she was a foster care social worker. She says: ``I always keep some time for myself.'' When she goes home, she says, she spends time with her husband and young son, before starting on any after-hours paper work.

In addition, she says, she keeps some emotional distance from her clients. She gets involved in their lives - clients praise her help and her caring - ``but I don't try to live their lives.''

Ms. Witherspoon credits co-workers and her husband with invaluable support.

Katherine Maus, SCAN's unit director of social work and an eight-year employee, says a feeling of success on the job is vital. ``I wouldn't have stayed this long if I hadn't felt more often successful than not. ... In terms of preventing serious abuse [to children] we've been extremely successful. ... I think we're able in most cases to prevent serious reabuse.''

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